Long weeks have passed since the first time we met.
She chose the time and the place. A cafe terrace overlooking the lake. It would be cold, she said, I should wrap up, but on a chill winter weekday there would be few people around, and we could speak freely. As now we should.
I arrived early. Of course I came early. I was never a morning person, but this was no ordinary day. Today I'd watched the sun come up from my balcony, sweat dampened sheets strewn on the floor, a long night passed in tossing and turning, anxious, doubtful, eager, determined, driven, fearful, hopeful, yearning .... till at last I rose from the tumult to sit in the cold morning air. If I smoked, I thought, this would be the right time to do it.
Now, hours later, I sat in the cafe, outside on the terrace. Best suit, best coat, woollen scarf, crisp new shirt bought for the occasion, ironed twice, shoes polished, hair cut and groomed. Looking down on the car park below, at the car I'd had cleaned inside and out for the occasion. Pointlessly, no doubt. Probably she would not even see it, far less set foot in it. It had just seemed appropriate.
She was late.
I tried not to look at my watch, to suppress the worm of anxiety as it grew with each passing tick. I tried instead to measure the time with sips of the coffee I'd ordered, my hand thrust deep in the pocket of my coat, as if hiding the watch would make time stand still.
No car pulled up in the car park.
Time crawled by in sips, till the cup was dry now, last drop drained. I pulled the watch from my pocket. Twenty five minutes. Twenty five to despair? Should I leave? I would not. I would sit there till nightfall, in vain hope no doubt, but I would wait all the same.
It was then that I heard the car door below. No car had pulled in, but a woman had stepped from a car that was parked there before. A well-dressed woman in a camel coat, with a scarf and a fur collar raised against the cold.
Looking up at the terrace, she raises a gloved hand and smiles.
All this time, she has been watching.
I stand, and raise my hand in return.
Through the glass panel behind me, I watch her enter the cafe. A waiter rushes to take her coat, but she waves him away with gracious good humour. With a smile she points to the terrace, and chatting gaily all the while, allows him to escort her to the corner table, where I stand, waiting, my heart thudding in my chest.
At the table now, she extends a hand. My first, fleeting impulse is to bow and to kiss it, but I know better than that. I extend mine and she shakes it firmly, a twinkle in her eye, as if somehow she's seen the thought that flashed through my mind.
Now she sits, fussing with the large leather bag she's carrying. She orders coffee from the waiter, and then with a shiver, summons him back.
"And a brandy, please. For the cold."
And then, looking at me:
"Perhaps my guest might like one too?"
He would. Not for the cold. To steady his nerves. I nod.
And already I've learned something. She is quick, observant and considerate with it.
While we wait for the order, she chats, chatters even, rapidly, fluently and inconsequentially about the lake and the weather, how she likes to walk in the woods, the traffic, the city, the cafe ... and I look on like a tongue-tied schoolboy, smiling when I can, nodding, but finding few words to interject.
She is an attractive woman, petite, not quite beautiful, but with an undefined, understated presence that draws me towards her. She is mature, clearly not in the first flush of youth, but wearing her years with grace and serenity, with laughter lines at the edge of her eyes she has made no attempt to disguise. She is discreetly but carefully made up, with faintly rouged cheeks and wide, dark, eyes that twinkle and flash under plucked, arched brows as she talks. Her hair is pulled back sharply from her face, and pinned in a knot, a hint of severity that contrasts with the jewellery she wears, and the soft fabrics I see under her coat.
At last the waiter arrives with the order.
As she smiles him away, her manner changes. By no means unfriendly, but now brisk and professional. She reaches in her bag, and removes a folder, a notebook, and a slim, silver pen. With a smile, she leans back in her chair.
"Thank you for coming. It's a pleasure to meet face to face at last."
"It is," I say, in eager agreement.
"We have a lot to discuss. Some, of course, we have discussed already, but I think it's important to hear each other's words, from our own lips. Don't you agree?"
She smiles, and I nod in agreement.
"Then let me begin. Please don't interrupt while I explain."
She sips from her brandy.
"As you can see, I am a mature woman. I will not tell you my age, but I will tell you I have lived the life you might expect me to have lived. It has been a conventional, orthodox, respectable middle class life. I have been married, divorced, widowed, a parent, a carer. I have enjoyed a career. With some success, I may add, although along the way I have had to take instruction from people less able than I."
She wrinkles her nose.
"Most of them men."
It's a joke. An icebreaker. I smile in agreement. She continues.
"Now, at last, I am free. Now this is MY time. I own a property I can do as I please in. I have an income that meets all my needs. I am beholden to no-one. I am a free and independent woman. And I intend to enjoy my freedom to the full. And in enjoying it, I am done with convention. I am done with orthodoxy, I am done with middle class respectability. I will do just as I please, live my life as I please, explore as I please, experience what I please, give free rein to all of my instincts and impulses, desires and pleasures, let light into the corners of my mind that have been dark until now."
She pauses. I am tempted to blurt admiration, but I do not interrupt.
"And for this I am seeking a man who will join me. There is no one word to describe this man. None that I know that convey all I want. But I will explain. I want a man who will surrender himself to me, without reserve and without qualification. He will obey me, in all of my pleasures, or he will be punished. I will lay down rules for his behaviour, which I will enforce. But despite all this, he will not be a slave. He will kneel at my feet every day because I am his light and that is the place that he chooses."
She has me fixed in her gaze now, unblinking. She sips from her glass and continues.
"This man will be, in some ways, my servant. He will cook and clean, drive and shop, deliver me from the tiresome mundanities of daily life. But he will be cherished in a way that servants are not."
I nod understanding. She sips and goes on.
"He will be, in some ways my, companion. He will escort me in public, he will be discreet and presentable, he will meet in time with my circle, though no-one but he and I will know the true ties that bind us. He will study my interests and learn my pleasures. He will learn to converse interestingly and intelligently on topics that interest me, and enjoy the things I enjoy. He will be a person whose presence I appreciate and who I enjoy to be with."
I nod understanding.
"He will be, in some ways, my lover, but I will not be his. He will attend to my intimate needs, as I explore them. But I will not concern myself with his, except, perhaps, as a means of direction."
With a lump in my throat, I think know what she means.
"With this man, I will be harsh and I will be gentle. I will be distant and I will be close. I will be stern and I will be gracious. I may choose to be cruel, I may choose to be kind. I will take his body and his tongue and the skin on his back if I choose to. And through it all, he will bow down to me. I will be his focus, his centre, his universe. His life will revolve around me."
She settles back in her chair, smiles.
"I trust with this I have made myself clear?"
"It is clear. A queen and her subject."
At that she laughs, a gay, unforced peal of laughter.
"I am not a Queen. I am a woman, in the prime of her life. Who knows what she wants. And is determined to have it."
Now she turns to the papers she has pulled from her bag. Our correspondence, the emails I sent her, here and there underlined, with annotations in a neat but flamboyant hand.,
Papers on the table, she returns to her bag, retrieves a pair of spectacles, puts them on, and peers at me over them.
"And now, Candidate Subject," she smiles, "let this queen you’ve appointed hear what you have to say. Why would you want such a position as this?"
For days now, I've been expecting this question and rehearsing my answer, trying to guess what she most wants to hear. But now with the question before me, my mind is a blank. And with her introduction, all the clichés, the evasions, the hackneyed protestations of servitude have gone. I start afresh.
"Because ... because it is what I am. I need to surrender. I need to meet my counterpart, to be her instrument, to find my fulfilment by offering her hers. To make her pleasures mine. There is nothing deeper and richer than this that I know."
"It’s an unusual path. What made you choose it?"
And now it’s my turn to smile.
"I did not choose it. It chose me. It's in my bones. I resisted it once. But now that I understand it, I have learned to embrace it."
"If we were to .... come to an arrangement, you might find my pleasures were not easy for you."
"I would not expect them to be. You have been clear about an … arrangement. My place would be to obey you. But obedience means nothing if it is too easy. I accept that. If I must suffer to please you, then suffer I must."
"Indeed. Your obedience would please me. And I would take steps to ensure that I got it."
A frisson runs through me. She is looking at me intently now. She take up her pen and writes in her notebook. A short note. I wish I could see it.
She sips from her glass and continues.
"What if I wanted to whip you? Would you submit to me? Would you enjoy it?"
"I would submit to you. But I would not enjoy it."
She raises an eyebrow, quizzical. I need to say more.
"Once I was whipped. A long time ago. It was an ordeal. I did not enjoy it. But I enjoyed its effect, when I could see it. The look on the lady's face, the light in her eyes and the colour in her cheeks as she beat me. She was exultant. And in some way I shared in that with her. And I felt proud, afterwards, that it was through me she found it."
She nods, notes. I continue.
"I would not enjoy the whip, but I would enjoy the threat of it. It would make me alert, attentive, focused. Alive on the edge. And I would enjoy what it means. A clear, structured, unambiguous relationship."
"And if I whipped you as punishment?"
"Then I would suffer it more, because it would be a fault I should not have made. And would hope not to make twice."
"And for any other reason?"
"Then I would hope I was giving you pleasure."
She nods. I continue.
“I understand that avoiding punishment might not mean escaping the whip.”
“You are correct. It might not.”
She notes, and turns a new page.
"I’m sure you know. There are means of encouragement apart from the whip. I might also have others in mind. What if I required chastity from you? Would you wear a device that ensured it?. Locked? While I held the key?"
"I would not find that easy. The thought is disturbing. But yes, I would wear your device."
"Do you understand why I might insist?"
"It's an expression of control and of power. And an ever present reminder of it."
"It is. But there's more. Denying you release would keep you in thrall to me. And it would amuse me to use a man's own passion to hold him in place at my feet."
The unexpected, implacable ruthlessness of it unnerves me. Her gaze is steady, unblinking. She is assessing. Involuntarily, I lower my eyes. Somewhere within me, part of me takes fright. And somewhere else, part of me is eager, and drawn to her like a moth to a flame. I nod.
"I understand. If this is your pleasure, it’s a price I must pay."
“And if I made you my servant? If I told you to do my laundry and clean my bathroom? Would you find passion there?"
"Some. It’s dull, daily life. But it's all part of the same fabric. A natural expression of the relationship. And easier to bear than some of the other expressions we have just discussed."
She smiles. A thin smile. But it's a smile. I continue.
"I would take cleaning your bathroom as seriously as any other instruction, to be executed with care and attention. And I would hope to provide satisfaction by doing it well."
She notes, smiles.
"Indeed. You might be punished if not."
I nod. She continues.
"I might also require more intimate service. I might call on your tongue. Perhaps more if I choose. "
"Of all we’ve discussed, that would be the most enjoyable requirement."
"I would hope so. But it might be wise not to assume my requirements."
And with that we have covered the list she set out to begin with. She has my answers. Some of them, I think, were good. Others, now, make me uneasy. She has noted and noted, but has she approved? She gives me no sign. And now she has a last question.
"And me, Candidate Subject? Why choose me for your queen? Why would you give me this crown?"
"Because you are all that I dream of. Because you are intelligent and thoughtful and knowledgeable. Because you are clear. Because you are determined. Because you are attractive. Because I see in you, the force I am in awe of. Because I can kneel for you, and mean it. And be proud to be there."
She nods, and closes her note book.
Suddenly, I'm aware of the cold on the terrace. She also shivers, pulls her coat round her. She gathers her notes and her papers and her pen, stands, takes off her glasses and pulls on her gloves.
Playful now, she extends her hand, as if for me for to kiss it, then laughs and pats me on the shoulder instead.
"Thank you for coming, David. I have enjoyed our discussion. And now I will consider your answers and decide if I wish to progress. I will contact you in due course. In the meantime, please make no attempt to contact me. I would not respond, and would not look well on you."
"And obey me in this now, David, or you will never see or hear from me again. I will settle the bill as I leave. You will remain here on the terrace for 20 minutes after I've gone".
"I understand and I will."
Suddenly she starts.
"But excuse me. I almost forgot. Have you questions for me?"
My mind swims with them, but I ask only one.
"Thank you. You've been very clear. But I do have one question. I only know your initials. Would you tell me a name?"
"No, David, I will not. Perhaps one day you may learn it, but it will not be today."
And with that she is gone.
From the terrace I watch her walk back to her car. She walks erect, poised and controlled. She gets in and drives off, without looking back.
If she is not a queen, she's the closest I've been to one.