The Golden Circle

by Nial Thorne

Chapter 15: All my heart

Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story is copyright © 2004 Nial Thorne. You may copy it for your own private use; all other rights reserved. See chapter 1 for more notes. Comments very welcome at
NOTE    This chapter includes bondage and whipping. I know that some people will prefer to skip it, so a brief summary will appear at the start of the next chapter.


“Completely terrified.”

Max had collected me from the bar, where we had eaten with Lakshmi. Now we were about five miles from the Centre, it seemed to me, in the area where the suburbs of London are mixed with stretches of semi-countryside. It had become a dismal day, and I had wrapped myself in my cloak.

“That’s not surprising,” said Max. “I won’t tell you not to be, because it would do no good, and in any case, it’s not entirely an inappropriate response.”

“What do you mean, Max?”

“Dan is a dominant, a master. His partner, Jeff, is called his slave. Don’t misunderstand me: they love each other very much, and each has done a lot for the other. You’ll find that Jeff is in no way a cipher. But Dan is in control, very much so. Does this make any sense to you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You sound certain.”

“Of course I don’t know what he’ll be like, or what he’ll do. But—I know what you’re talking about, partly at least.”

“He won’t want sex,” said Max. “I checked. But he may want other things.”


“This is the reason we brought you down here. We need you, Jack. Later I’ll show you some of the correspondence about your speech yesterday. And we need Ewan, too. He’s a genius at what he does. Bill and Susan are not fools, but they can’t always do it. We can’t have a situation where Ewan is out of action.”

“He’s just on leave,” I said.

“This isn’t the time for leave. The real Ewan wouldn’t go on leave at this moment. There’s something wrong.”

“I can’t help with that. I’ve no idea what’s happening. Why don’t you phone him? Send out a search party?”

“He has no phone,” said Max. “We could find him, but if we burst in on him it could make things worse. The best thing we can do is sort you out.”

I said nothing. I was beginning to resent this mission. It seemed to me that it was unlikely to have any worthwhile outcome.

We were on a tiny lane leading out of a major dual carriageway, a typical thing in this area. The autumn hedges on either side had a greyish look, and in places were spattered with wastepaper and other litter. Peering through one of them I could see a nondescript field stretching a few hundred yards to the car-park of a burnt-out supermarket. It was a depressing part of the country.

“I’ve had them disable your assault control,” he said.

“I think that’s the scariest thing you’ve said so far.”

Finally we turned off the lane onto a short gravelled drive bordered with rhododendrons, which led up to a large nineteenth-century brick house. Max stopped the car and we got out.

“Be respectful,” he said, “speak only when you’re spoken to—“

“It’s okay, Max. I understand.”

He gave me a curious look, and led me to the door. I stood behind him, my cloak wrapped round me against the drizzle and wind. Max rang the bell, and the door was opened at once.

The man who greeted us was in his twenties, wearing jeans and a teeshirt. He looked at us briefly.

“Good afternoon, Dr Margrave. Please come in,” he said. And to me: “Sir, please come in.”

“Thank you, Jeff,” said Max.

Something about the way Jeff had spoken told me that he had been ordered to say ‘sir’ to me, even though he was clearly senior.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

Jeff acknowledged this with a small smile.

“Please wait here. Perhaps I could take your cloak?”

“Thank you, sir,” I said again, as Jeff swept out of the room.

“You needn’t say ‘sir’,” whispered Max. “He’s not the master!”

“Nor am I, Max.”

“Eh? Oh, I see. This is only when they’re doing their thing, you know; sometimes I meet them and it’s just ‘Jeff’ and ‘Dan’ and ‘Max’.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I really do understand.”

And I did understand, I realised, at any rate to some extent. The terror I had felt earlier subsided; somehow I knew I was in no real danger here. For a few minutes we waited, which although fine for me, seemed inappropriate for a Minister. Then Jeff returned.

“My master says that although it’s entirely up to yourselves, it might be best if Dr Margrave were to withdraw now.”

“No, I think—”

“It’s okay, Max,” I said. “Yes, sir, I agree that the Minister for Children probably has better things to do than wait in the hall,” I said to Jeff. “I’ll see you later, Max.”

“If you’re quite sure?”

“I’m sure. See you tomorrow.”

Max hugged me briefly, which was a surprise. Jeff saw him out, and I was left alone. Nothing happened for what seemed like a long time. I didn’t move; I just stood and waited.

Finally, I heard a brief laugh, and I turned. The man standing behind me wore leather trousers, a white teeshirt and boots; he was smiling at me.

“Sir,” I said, and bowed my head briefly.

“Come here, Jack Marchmont,” he said, gesturing to the floor in front of him. “Kneel.”

I obeyed. A leather switch pressed under my chin, pushing my head back.

“You’re very pretty.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I am Dan Threadgold. You are unimpressed by the way I treated Max Margrave.”

“He is a Minister in the Government, sir. With respect, sir, he should not be treated like a servant.”

“You’re a cheeky slave, Jack Marchmont.”

“I’m not anyone’s slave, sir,” I said quietly. “But I certainly owe more to Max Margrave than I do to you.”

He laughed.

“And if I say that he’s an old friend, and I enjoy teasing him sometimes?”

“I can understand that, sir. But undermining his position in front of me was perhaps not well done.”

He walked to the end of the room, where there was a large wooden chair, almost a throne. I suppose it was kept for these occasions, because it didn’t look very comfortable.

“Come over here and kneel again. Let’s talk about Jack Marchmont. I understand that you have had some dealings with Ewan Hart.”

“Yes, sir.”

“In a few sentences, tell me what happened. We will fill in the blanks later.”

“My family lives in Chedley. Ewan met us on the day of the Change. He and I got to know each other. When the mentor scheme was announced, we agreed that we would be mentor and pupil. At the last moment, however, he told me not to nominate him personally as a mentor. That means that there is almost no chance that he will be chosen as my mentor.”

“You feel aggrieved.”

“I feel angry: I feel he has betrayed me. I feel sad. I feel disappointed, since I was expecting to be with him, someone I loved, and now I’ll be with a stranger instead. I feel uncertain, because I don’t understand why he has done this. And I feel frightened, because I do not know who my mentor will be.”

“According to Max, you have a suspicion as to why Ewan did this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are not sleeping well.”

“No, sir.”

“You have become quite famous, boy. I see you on TV constantly. Your words appear on posters.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You write well, you speak well, and you are saying things that need to be said. You are a good thing, boy. It’s important that you sort yourself out. Do you agree?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then let’s see what we can do. Don’t worry, you will not be injured, nor am I proposing to have sex with you, agreeable though that might be. You can expect discomfort and some pain. Are we agreed?”

“Y—yes, sir.”

“Well said. Do you know what a safeword is?”

“No, sir.”

For moment his eyes seemed to soften.

“Your safeword is pomegranate,” he said. “If at any time you say pomegranate, I shall instantly stop what I am doing, and take you back to Hotel 2. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. My slave will prepare you.”

Jeff led me downstairs. Neither of us said anything until we were in a long basement room. Much of it was unlit; I could see shapes of things there, but couldn’t work out what they were. In the lit part there were simply a horizontal beam, a chair and a table.

“Take your clothes off, boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

I slipped off my boots, then undid my buckle and slid out of my lifesuit, with Jeff watching every move. Then I removed my socks, and, at a gesture from him, my trunks. As usual, I was half-hard.

“And this.”

“That’s the Golden Circle, sir. It can’t be removed. It’s permanent.”

“I see. Come over here.”

He adjusted the beam to the height of my shoulders, and positioned me under it. Then he pulled my arms out sideways and slightly back and bound the wrists to the beam. The effect was that I was forced to bend my body forwards slightly. My ankles were each fastened to the end of a bar, holding them far apart. The position was uncomfortable, but not in itself painful. Finally, he set up a bright light shining directly at me.

And then he left, and for a while nothing happened. But I was now in turmoil. The situation was close to my strongest and deepest fantasies, the ones I felt most uneasy about, and it flooded me with a wave of desire; but I was also terrified. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I don’t know how long they left me there, but by the end I was beginning to hurt, down my back, in my shoulders and arms and down the inside of my legs. It didn’t stop me from being completely hard, dripping with lust.

“Right,” said Dan, coming into the room. “All set up? This is how it works. We are going to discuss your affairs, boy. I will sit here, and you will look at me. Do it.”

It meant bending my head up; it was a strain, and naggingly uncomfortable. Dan himself was behind the light, which now shone straight into my face, and I couldn’t see him at all.

“If you lie, or delay, or don’t answer intelligently, or if you let your head fall, then this will happen.”


The switch leapt out, and fell on the inside of my thigh. For just an instant, it was agony, although it faded quickly.

“For repeated lapses, we might consider five strokes, like this.”

“Ow! Shit! Ow!”

Being whipped was not at all how I had imagined it in my fantasies: it hurt. Whether or not that was Dan’s purpose, it removed my arousal instantly.

“The purpose of the switch is to impress on you that this is an important discussion, that we are here to do serious work. I’m not very interested in emotional outbursts, tears, explosions of anger and so on. We have business to do. I see that to some extent this situation turns you on. That’s not surprising, given the kind of person you are, but that’s not what this occasion is about. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, blushing.

“You see the phone? It’s set to conference. At certain times, your uncle will ring, to assure himself that you’re alive. That’s a very reasonable precaution on his part, although in fact you are in no danger. When he rings, you will briefly tell him that you are okay. You won’t enter into any lengthy discussions. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. Let’s start with a review of what happened...”

It must have lasted five or six hours or so, because my uncle rang at four o’clock, and again at seven. Over that time I was questioned without mercy. Hesitations and prevarications were instantly punished with the switch, on my thighs, my belly, my sides, my shoulders. Keeping my head up became painful, and then an agony, and forcing out my answers against that agony became a torment.

Three times he paused and let me rest my head. Jeff brought me water to drink, and wiped my face with a damp cloth. But after only a few minutes, he started again.

What did I tell him? Everything. I couldn’t keep anything back. I quickly didn’t even want to keep anything back. And he didn’t start with Ewan; he started with the death of our parents; and then the events during The Problems, what we had seen in the gardens. And then it was Ewan and I, and I told him what we had done, what we had said, what I had thought, what everyone else had said. I told him about the sex we had had. I told him about showering in the dark. I told him about kneeling before Ewan, my forehead on the floor. I told him about being tricked into the interview with Harcourt, about the implant, and them triggering it at the party, I told him about receiving the Golden Circle from Ewan’s hands. And I told him about that final morning, what we had done and said in our bed, and during that horrible walk to school. I told him everything that had happened since: the Request, the day I filled in the form, the speech to the school. I gave him my whole history, all my dreams and fantasies and nightmares. He gutted me.

“You’ve told me everything, boy,” he said, finally. “You can rest for a while now. Slave, take him down. Do you need to piss?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take him to piss and then let him lie him on the bed. Fifteen minutes.”

Jeff started to free my arms.

“Wait. Head up for one moment.” Wearily, I obeyed. “You’re a brave boy, Jack Marchmont. He will be courageous and will never give up hope.

“Thank you, sir,” I whispered.

There was a toilet in the corner of the room, and Jeff helped me there. I could scarcely move, the pain and cramps all over my body were so severe. Once I had pissed he led me to a single bed in the corner, and there, gratefully, I collapsed.

It seemed like seconds later that Jeff was pulling me to my feet again. This time, however, the way he fastened me to the beam was much easier: my arms were simply stretched out sideways, so that I could stand up straight.

“Feeling better, boy?” said Dan.

“A little, thank you, sir.”

“I can still switch you, though, and I will if you relax your attention or your intelligence in the slightest. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re not a very trusting sort of person, are you, boy?”

“No, sir. I’m aware that I’m not.”

“And why do you think that is?”

If anything, what followed was even harder than the first section. I was required to examine my motives, and the motives of everyone around me. Exactness and nuance were required, but little if any time was allowed for thought. It was exhausting beyond all imagination. My feet were now agony, and the whole of my body was smarting from the switch. He was relentless and without mercy. Often the things we were discussing would reduce me to tears, but he made no allowance for them at all, simply pressing me forwards.

And I was finding things out, things I had already known but not recognised, hard things, painful things, as well as beautiful and reassuring things. Like the huge amounts of work and worry my uncle had devoted to caring for us after our parents’ death. Like the extent to which my brother loved and admired me. Like the selfless way my aunt had given of her time to help us and the danger she had put herself in to protect us from the Hand of God. Like the selfish way I had taken all this for granted. Like all the nasty, shameful lies and cruelties of a child’s life.

And again I went over the horror of the burnings and hangings in the gardens, and the dreams, the dream of them all being burnt, one by one, and how in the end it was Ewan who brought the torch to my own fire.

My uncle called again; it must be ten o’clock. And then, later, much later it seemed, Dan paused.

“We’ll take a break,” he said. “Afterwards, we’ll be talking about Ewan Hart. Give him some more water, slave. You can wait like that, I think, don’t want you to get too comfortable. Here’s an aide memoire, let’s say.”

And on the wall opposite me there appeared a projected photograph of Ewan. He was smiling in the way I remembered so well, and it tore right through me. It took me about ten seconds of looking at it to know that I would do anything, anything at all to get him back, and all the pain he had caused me was utterly inconsequential compared to the pain of not having him.

I stood tied to my beam and wept again the tears of loss.

Half an hour must have passed before Dan returned.

“Why are you crying, boy?”

He’d never asked me a question like that before.

“Because I lost him. I was going to have a lover and a mentor and—and maybe a master. But I lost them all, and now I’m alone.”

“Why are you angry with him?”

“Because—because he took himself away,” I said.

“So are you angry with him for deceiving you?”

I paused for moment, and the switch leapt. I no longer screamed when this happened.

“No,” I said. “Not really. I tell myself I am, because that seems more noble and less petty. It offends my pride less. The truth is, the thing that makes me sad and angry is losing him, that’s all.”

“Are you angry with him for lying to you?”

“Same thing. No. I’d like to think I was, but it’s not true really.”

“And why do think he left you, and took himself away?”

“I’m still not certain,” I said. “Maybe he just doesn’t like me very much, and was lying to get sex from me. But I don’t think that’s right.”

“Why not?”

“If it was that, he’s surely have tried to get a lot more sex than he did.”

“Yes, that sounds right,” he said. “So you think he did like you?”

“I don’t have much experience. But I think he did. Lots of people have told me that he isn’t the kind of person to fake that sort of thing, and Max told me that Ewan often said that he loved me.”

“So, do you think he suddenly changed his mind?”

“I can’t see why he should,” I said, “but I suppose it’s possible. But if so, it must have been really fast. Like, half an hour or so. I don’t think that’s likely either.”

“Which means that he didn’t stop liking you, but told you not to nominate him anyhow. Why would he do that?”

“Not for the reason he gave. The forms the selectors get really are secret, and no one would know we’d nominated each other. That reason was not true.”

“Why did he do it, then?” he said.

“One thing I thought was, he wanted to test me, to test my obedience. But it seems to me that doesn’t work either. Because he just made me furious, so I wouldn’t want to nominate him anyhow. So maybe it’s another thing.”

“What?” He flicked me three times. “Don’t play games with me, boy. Get on with it.”

“Ugh! Maybe—maybe he just wanted me to suffer the pain. The pain of loss. Maybe even though he loves me he wants me to suffer. Maybe he’s that sort of person. Or maybe he thinks that sort of suffering is good for me, and will make me a better person.”

“And which of those is the most likely?”

“The second,” I said. “I suppose it could be the second, with a bit of the first mixed in.”

“How very perceptive of you. Yes. Tell me, boy, have you kept your promises to him?”

“Yes. No! All except one! I promised him—I promised him that I would never forget that we love each other. And I did. I forgot that.”

“What were the things he told you when you promised him that?”

“That we were going on an adventure,” I said, “exploring sex and control, and going to wild places where I would be frightened and hurt and excited and where I’d lose myself and wonder who I was. Then he said that soon I’d be in situations which I’d find almost unbearable, and I’d wonder how I could get through them. ”


“That’s exactly what happened. And I did forget.”

“Don’t be unfair on yourself,” he said, surprisingly. “He obviously meant you to forget, otherwise it wouldn’t have been unbearable at all.”

“Does this mean I’ll get him back?”

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Maybe he wants this to be a love which doesn’t happen. Some people are like that. Maybe he wants to gamble his love. Maybe he’s testing himself in some way. On the other hand, maybe he has a plan to get you back. You can’t tell.”

“So the end of it is, I’m still as uncertain as ever.”

I’d felt that we were really reaching out for something; but at the last moment it seemed it had evaded my grasp after all.

“It was all for nothing,” I said, and started to weep again.

“No it wasn’t,” he said. “He gave you an order, didn’t he? To accept it. You’re not being told the outcome: simply to accept it. Do you agree?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“You acknowledged him as your master. You knelt to him, you gave him your fealty, didn’t you? You gave him the leadership of your relationship. You gave him the right to direct it, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“You don’t have to like it. It’s not a question of pretending to be happy with it, or anything like that. It’s a question of trust. Maybe he will be your mentor; maybe he won’t. You have to trust him to do the best for you, no matter what it is, even if it’s to end the relationship. Do you understand?”

I writhed inside at the unfairness of it, but I could feel the rightness of what he said, the way it fitted round me, round my nature. I just didn’t see how I could do as he demanded.

“Then obey your master’s order, boy. If you accept it, if you obey your order, the problem will be over. Remember: you told me. The only real sadness, and the only real anger you have with him is the loss. Obey his order to accept the loss, and your problem will be over. Accept it!”

“I can’t.”

“You can.” He flicked me. “You are a submissive, and obedience is your nature. You can and you will obey his order, because I’m going to switch you until you do. And I can read you now, boy. Lying won’t cut it. Accept! You will get him back, or not, as he decides, because he is your master, and you accept his decisions. Do you understand?”

“Yes. But I can’t!”

“This is the core of it, and you shall obey both him and me! Accept! Accept!”

He began to flick me, again and again, all over my body, up and down my legs, my sides, inside my thighs, along my arms, on my chest and belly, and harder, and quicker, and my mind began to writhe with the pain of it, and the pain of the loss. It went on and on; and on and on; the pain simply flooded into my consciousness and I almost seemed to disappear into it, to be lost in an endless maze of pain and loss, struggling to get through it. And then, I found my struggle had become not a struggle to resist, but a struggle to accept; and then, somehow, something had changed, and it was as if I had gone up higher and higher into a mountain of pain and revolt and resistance, and had come down the other side. And I discovered that somehow I had managed to do what he demanded.

I must have been screaming, although I don’t remember it, I must have shouted, because somehow he knew what had happened, and abruptly the pain stopped. I hung from the beam, my legs no longer supporting me, and I felt the two of them together help me down and lay me on the bed, and Dan himself gave me water to drink, supporting my head. For a while I couldn’t speak; I could scarcely even think.

And then the phone rang.

“Hello, Jack? Are you there?”

“Yeah, Uncle, I’m here,” I gasped.

“Are you okay? You sound exhausted.”

“It’s been rough, but I’m okay now. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay, Jack. Look after yourself.”

The effort of talking to him was almost too much to me.

“Come on, son,” said Dan kindly. “Let’s get you to bed.”

And they took me upstairs, the two of them, and I found myself in their bed between them, and they held me and comforted me as I slipped quickly into sleep.

I was woken by the phone. I was alone in the bed, but Dan was leaning over me, holding the squeaking monster, and grinning. I grabbed it.

“Yeah, ugh, hello, Uncle. Sorry, I was asleep.”

“Asleep? Are you okay? You sound strange.”

“I’m okay. Your call woke me up, that’s all.”

“Oh! I’m sorry. What are your plans?”

“Hang on.” I looked up at Dan. “What are my plans?”

He took the phone.

“Dr Marchmont, I would like Jack to stay here for another hour or so. We’ll have some breakfast and debrief a little. After that I’ll bring him back to your hotel, arriving at nine o’clock. I suggest that he should have another sleep before you go to the Baxters’. Is that acceptable? Good, then we’ll see you at nine.”

Dan sat on the bed and touched my cheek lightly. He was wearing ordinary jeans and a check shirt.

“You’re so lovely. And so brave. And so bright. I’ll always count myself as privileged to have worked with you. You’re a very easy person to love, Jack Marchmont. That woman in the Ministry for Children was right.”

“How do you know about her?”

“You told me. There isn’t a damn thing about you I don’t know, Jack. Jeff and me—we know you. And there isn’t an ounce of you that isn’t loveable. C’mon. There’s a shower in there. Your clothes are on the chair. Get yourself up and we’ll have breakfast.”

Feeling somehow light and disconnected from things, I rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom. I examined my body in the mirror: it was covered from shoulders to knees with marks from Dan’s switch, some thin and light, some quite deep. In a few places where they crossed, there were even flecks of blood. I looked at myself with an odd kind of affection and amusement. Boy, you’ve seen a few things, I thought. It’s lucky you haven’t got any gym classes till the selection.

And so, twenty minutes later, now dressed in my lifesuit, I was sitting with them in their bright kitchen, eating bacon and eggs, and I was ravenous. I had had no supper.

“Those lifesuits, they’re so damn cute!” said Jeff.

“They feel sexy too,” I said. “All the time.”

“Perhaps I could get one for you, Jeff,” said Dan.

“It’s a bit different when you get zapped if you wear anything else,” I said. “Well, not zapped. Tooth-on-edged.”

“There’s a piece about you in the Sunday paper,” said Jeff, pushing it across.

The article covered two broadsheet pages, with a huge picture of me in a lifesuit. WE WILL BE A MIGHTY GENERATION it was headlined. And there was a strapline: Why is it left to this schoolboy to explain Government policy to children?

“It’s a fair question,” I said. “I don’t mind helping to talk to kids about the Golden Circle, but it’s stupid to base the whole thing on me, and have no plan B at all. If I’d fucked up on Friday there’d have been a riot. I said that to Max yesterday. The Government’s careless about that side of things. Like that business with the implants.”

“That was Martins,” said Dan. “He has a slight screw loose when it comes to implants, if you ask me. I know the man. This business, however—I think it’s because Ewan isn’t here.”

“How much is that my fault?”

“Not at all,” said Dan. “Not in the slightest. He made dominance/submission the style of your relationship. That’s fine, it clearly suits both of you, in fact. But that means he accepts responsibility for things like that. If you’re the master, you don’t get to have hissy fits and flounce off in a huff. You don’t run away and hide. You have responsibilities.”

Dan’s face was hard. It came to me that he was not pleased with Ewan.

“You are not to blame, son,” he said quietly.

“Absolutely,” said Jeff. “Not in any way.”

“Okay. Thank you, sir.”

“I’ve never worked with anyone as young as you.”

“Nor have I,” said Jeff.

“It’s been an enchanting experience,” Dan went on. “Your submission is so gentle and easy, and your responses are so fine. When you’re in pain, you’re delightful. No one has ever taught you this stuff, have they?”

“No. It just seems right. I hated the pain, but the situation, the whole thing—it seemed familiar. I seemed to know what to do.”

“Yes. You’re a submissive, Jack. You’re going to need this, and pain is something you learn to handle. Let me ask you a few questions. Suppose Ewan became your mentor somehow. Would you be able to accept him?”

“Yes. It would be like Christmas Day.”

“No ‘you deceived me, you bastard, I’m gonna make you crawl’?”

“No. I did that once, and I couldn’t do it again. Actually, the thought of doing that makes me feel a bit sick now. If I did that, it would really be a lie.”

“And if it turns out that it’s for real? He isn’t your mentor, but someone else is?”

“I know what you’re asking. I’d be able to accept it, because you were right, he is the boss as far as that relationship goes, and he gets to call the shots. It’s pointless to say that the thought makes me happy, because it doesn’t. I’ll hate it, I’ll really hate it, but if that’s the way he wants to go, that’s how it’ll be. There are other things in my life, and other people, and some of them are really good people and they’ll all help. And it’s my duty to give my new mentor a chance too. It’s like I told those kids—it’s part of being a controlled child. You get a mentor. You don’t get to choose him. It just means that the next six years will be work, not happiness.”

“Okay, son. We’re done. Let’s take you back to your uncle, for whom I have a considerable respect, I might add. You might care to think about what it’s like to hang on a phone like that, wondering what the fuck’s happening to your beloved nephew at the other end. Give him some time over the next few days if you can. Remember that after the selection you won’t see him for a month.”

He stood; but I got up, and then knelt, and touched the floor with my forehead, as I had done for Ewan.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

“It’s been my pleasure, boy.”

He helped me up; and then he and Jeff were both hugging me.

“Whatever happens, come back and see us,” said Jeff. “You’re pretty and you’re fun.”

And a few minutes later Dan and I were in his car, on the way back to the Centre.

“We heard what you and Max were saying,” said Dan, as we drove. “We were in stitches. ‘You needn’t say sir. He’s not the master!’. Max is always Mr Tolerant Rationalist, but he really hasn’t a clue about our stuff. And then you were quite cheeky to me.”

“I didn’t want you to think I was a complete pushover.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I suppose—I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I wanted to make myself a bit more interesting? More of a challenge.”

He laughed.

“That’s a good instinct. But bloody hell, Jack, you’re fourteen years old. I was more-or-less ordered by Tom Baxter to sort you out, and you’re a kid! How much more challenge do you think I could take?”

“Glad I worked out, then.”

“Fuck, yes. Look, son, I haven’t solved all your problems. But I hope you have a way forwards now, and you can stop this endless mental pacing back and forth.”

“Yeah, I think that’s right,” I said.

“You’ve got important things to do, Jack. You’ve got a contribution to make, and it seems to me that no one else is making it. Don’t let them take you for granted, Max and the Pub-Ed crew, Bill and Susan and Co, and don’t let them write your script. They aren’t bad people, but it’s completely clear that they don’t know all the answers. Keep your independence and find your own voice. Do what you think is needed, okay?”

I stared at him. What he said chimed with some thoughts of my own, and some things that Neal had said as well.

“Maybe you don’t understand quite what happened last night,” he went on. “I gave you literally hundreds of switch strokes. I worked you for more than ten hours, without mercy. You didn’t use your safeword and you never once lost it. You’re strong, Jack. And you’re good. What you’re doing now is important enough, but that’s just the beginning.”

“I don’t understand.”

He laughed.

“Maybe not. But you will... Thursday week is your selection, yes? Any idea when?”

“Yes. There’s more than two hundred of us to get through, so they’re going to start on us fourth-years at about seven in the morning. I pity the mentors, in a way. They all have to be there and waiting all day, to be ready when their pupil comes up.”

“Here’s my card,” he said. “Try to phone me if you can as soon as you’ve been selected.”

“Yes, sir.”

He smiled at me. And a few moments later we arrived at the gate of the Centre. The same sergeant was on duty and he recognised us both, so we went through quickly.

“He knew you,” said Dan.

“Everyone bloody knows me. I gave him an autograph for his daughter.”

“Hey, don’t bitch at your fans, dude! They pay your bills!”

“No, they don’t.”

He laughed again. We got on well, and I felt I was making a good friend.

Waiting on the steps of the hotel, to my surprise, were my uncle and Corporal Roberts. Dan drew the car up, and we both got out. He put his hand over my shoulders and led me to my uncle.

“Well, here he is, Dr Marchmont. Safe and sound.”

Suddenly overcome by fondness for my uncle, I moved to him and hugged him, and stayed pressed against his side.

“How are you, son?”

“I’m completely fine, Uncle.”

“I think you should give him a once-over, though, doctor,” said Dan. “Stripped off.”

I looked at him sharply, but his gaze was bland.

“Yes, I’ll do that,” said my uncle.

“Could I suggest that you send him upstairs to have a nap? It was a rough day and he had less than six hours sleep. And I’d like a few words with you in private...”

“Yes, I’d like that too,” said my uncle. “Okay, Jack, go and catch a snooze. I’ll be up later.”

“Goodbye, sir,” I said to Dan.

He swept me into his arms.

“Bye, kid,” he whispered. “Love yah.” And then aloud: “See you later today.”

I went up in the lift feeling happy.