Sitting alone in Matt's strange, soulless cavern of an apartment, Carol wondered how the other two were getting on. Perhaps she was the only one who had gone through with it. Even right up to the last moment before she rang the doorbell, she had been on the brink of backing out and heading home. The chances of Helen and Gillian being as brave as her, and of getting away with it, seemed low.
She took out her mobile to ring and find out, then stopped herself. She didn't want to know; she didn't want to be put off. What her friends did was no longer the point. Now she was here, she just had to think about her and Matt. The fact that he hadn't turned her away did not, of itself, amount to a significant achievement. It was just the start. She had to focus on her objective, which was to help him.
Carol would never have thought of herself as the kind of person likely to snoop, least of all in breach of the trust that a host has placed in a guest, but Matt wasn't really a host, and she wasn't really a guest. She knew it wasn't her flat, but it was, in a sense, the next best thing. He was her son and she loved him. She'd never do anything that wasn't in his interests.
By this logic, just the fact that she wanted to look around made it justifiable, and she decided to start by looking under his bed. The first stage of the operation was research. She had to find out more about who he really was. Specifically, she had to seek out the gulf between how he presented himself to her and who he really was. Under the bed seemed like a logical place to begin.
The main thing he kept there, she discovered, was dust. Dust and sports equipment, the combination of which told her that he was the kind of man who enjoyed buying his gear more than using it. This didn't come as much of a surprise. Throughout his childhood he'd been the same, nagging for a particular must-have Christmas present from October, only to lose interest in it by the end of Boxing Day.
A small, black, interestingly un-sporty box caught her eye just as she was about to stand up. She reached through the shag-pile of dust to claw it free from the corner in which it was wedged. The box had no lettering or logo on it, but was solidly made out of expensive cardboard. This was a woman box, not a man box.
Carol sat on the bed and opened it up. Inside, on a bed of artfully crumpled red tissue-paper, was a pair of handcuffs, two tubes of "Lick Me Lubricant" and "Spunky Cappuccino Chocolate Body Paint", and a small string of beads that had presumably been left in the box by accident. Tucked down the side of the crêpe paper was a tiny envelope, on the front of which was the letter "M", written in a swirling, feminine hand.
It wasn't entirely without a pang of conscience that Carol pulled the card from the envelope. She had fallen out with Matt in the past over her slight tendency towards nosiness, but the fact is, if it is your job to empty your child's bedroom bins, you simply will stumble across things that may not have been intended for your eyes. She knew she had, on occasion, overreacted. She could see now that her reaction to his fountain pen refill kit, which really had looked startlingly like a syringe, had been a little hysterical, but she had only been trying to do the right thing. Everything she had ever done for her child had always been only for him. But the difficult thing with children was that they never forgot or forgave anything. You could get a thousand things right, but it was the one thing they objected to that would be remembered.
It occurred to Carol that, with each passing generation, parents seemed to be getting more lenient with their children, while children got stricter with their parents. How long would it be, she thought, before things went full circle, and teenagers started beating their parents when they misbehaved?
As an envelope-opening pang override, Carol asked herself what kind of person could possibly not look. What freak of self-control would stop herself reading the card? Anyone lacking that curiosity would be inhumanly self-absorbed. Such a person would be, above all else, a terrible mother. It was, therefore, in her capacity as a good mother that she opened the card and read it.
The front of the card was blank cream, textured with thin, shallow ridges. The inside said:
You have been a very bad boy.
I am going to have to punish you.
Who was K? What had Matt done? How she had punished him didn't require too much figuring out.
Carol realised that her hands had begun to tremble, and beads of moisture were prickling at her neck. Was her son a pervert? Did this count as bondage? Did people really do this? Normal people? Was this something a mother should worry about? Were there self-help groups for this kind of thing?
Carol had another look at the tubes. On closer inspection, they seemed like they had been used once. Enthusiastically. Unsparingly. But only once. The lid of the box, moreover, had been just as dusty, if not even dustier, than the squash and tennis rackets. Once, on reflection, probably wasn't enough to class you as a pervert.
Carol put the tubes back in the box, her fingers working with clumsy haste as she rearranged the tissue-paper into its previous position. She felt suddenly rather hot, and began to think she might be blushing. Lurid images were now flashing into her mind, of a variety she didn't know her subconscious even housed.
She clapped the lid on the box, pushed it firmly back to a distant corner among the under-bed filth, and stood up. She walked briskly to the kitchen and swallowed down a tall glass of water, its coolness on her tongue and lips dispelling the sordid murk that had begun to cloud her mind.
She washed her hands, twice, sensing as she dried them a tiny and rather surprising upswell of maternal pride. Women wanted her son. Not just mousy, bland women, but women like "K", who were capable of going into heaven knows what kind of shops and emerging with small black boxes of unspeakable items.
You wouldn't want your son to marry a K. You certainly wouldn't want a K as the mother of your grandchildren. But there was a certain pride in discovering that your son knew how to handle one. It was a little like mountain-climbing. You wouldn't like the idea of your child going, but you'd feel proud when he got back home safely.
The world was full of Ks, and always had been, even though they had only recently opened shops for them. Carol knew there was a K in every Tube train, every office, every supermarket, and next time she found herself near one, she resolved to feel a little less scornful, and a little less intimidated.
As for Carol's research, this was important and discouraging news. Her pursuit of an explanation for the lack of grandchildren had immediately taken a step forwards. Now she knew the scale of the task. If Matt was to produce for her the babies she so craved, he had to travel from a K to a breeder.
The idea that Carol would be able to have any effect on his taste in women at all, let alone such a radical one, suddenly struck her as ludicrously ambitious. Unless, these days, there were women like K who also wanted children. It was possible. There was no limit to the increasing demands that men felt they could make on women, and a touch of whorishness in the bedroom had quite possibly, since her day, been added to the menu. But how she would find such a woman, or persuade Matt to take an interest in her, she had no idea.
© William Sutcliffe, 2008
'Whatever Makes You Happy' is published by Bloomsbury at £10.99
About the author
William Sutcliffe was brought up in London and lives in Edinburgh. His previous novels include 'New Boy', 'Are You Experienced' and 'The Love Hexagon'.