Whenever I am a little minxy or difficult, at a dinner party, say, or on a night out or simply at the shopping centre, Ben will say: “remember the paperclip, Wendy.” Sometimes friends, overhearing, give us quizzical looks; the bolder ones may even ask what Ben means. We tell them it is a private joke, too complex and trivial to be worth explanation; so far this has always forestalled further curiosity. But the paperclip is not a joke. It is an invisible key inserted into a hidden lock. Later, at a convenient moment, I will whisper into Ben’s ear “yes, I remember” or “no, I forget”, determining whether the lock will open or not. It is our secret code, and it is always sealed with a kiss.
There really is a paperclip. It is here in the upstairs study, on the leather-topped mahogany desk at which I am typing. The question is whether to move it or not. Today it is sitting at the right-hand edge of the desk, just where it was yesterday and for most of the past week. Do I want to move it or not? A lot hinges on my answer, as it does every day. Most days I move it. If, when I awake, it is on the left edge of the desk, I will at some point during the day transfer it to the right edge; the next day I will put it back on the left edge. This can continue day after day. Once, even, for three consecutive weeks the paperclip made a daily journey from one side of the desk to the other. But I haven’t been feeling quite myself recently, and the paperclip hasn’t been touched for six days. Today I think it is time to move it again.
The ritual is not about moving the paperclip; the ritual is about asking and answering the question whether to move it. I first began asking the question nearly five years ago. At the time my life was an awful mess. A few months earlier I had deregistered from my doctoral programme, putting on hold three years of fraught research on a PhD I no longer cared about or even understood. The plan was to reassess my life, my ambitions, my goals. I visualized days occupied by reading, thinking and exercise, and some freelance proofreading and translating to pay the bills, all leading to clarity about the meaning, shape and direction of my life. But mostly I did nothing. Waking up late, I drifted through the hours in my pyjamas, smoking cigarettes to the background noise of Radio 4, eating cereal or toast or snacks at odd times, picking up books only to set them aside after a few minutes of desultory reading, doodling, lounging, staring, napping. In bed at night I made resolutions about new days and new starts. These resolutions had no more substance than my dreams. My motivation evaporated, the cycle repeated itself.
But I had Ben. And me, my poor diet, my empty bank account, my lethargy and listlessness—he took them in and gave them a home. We’d been dating for a couple of months. Casually, not seriously, I supposed—I’m not sure I considered it even a relationship, and the mental fog of my inertia clouded my ability to discern how much I liked him—but it was the one thing I managed to rouse myself for. On an October evening, curled up on his sofa, the final glasses from a bottle of wine in our hands, I suddenly burst into tears and sobbed my narration of the wilderness in which I was lost. With tender touches and loving attention, he listened, he consoled, he comforted—and he asked me to live with him. For a moment, speechless, I was determined to refuse, for a “yes” seemed too cynical and obvious: I had no money and no job, whereas Ben was a successful lawyer, and I had fallen behind with my rent, whereas Ben owned a small but comfortable two-bedroom terrace house in a smart area of the city. Then I looked from his face down to his large hands wrapped around mine and I realized I loved him. I moved in the following day.
Ben shone a light for me to head towards. He cherished me and nurtured me; he cooked me nutritious meals; he encouraged my hopes; he indulged my despair; he was patient with my confused mind; he was gentle and passionate with my receptive body. But still I struggled to reach the light.
One day he suggested a new idea. It was, he informed me, an approach he had learned from a counsellor he had consulted in his youth. The principle was that mental strength—which I so singularly lacked—needed training just as physical strength does. It requires disciplined exercise, routines and habits. Every evening, before I went to sleep, I was to decide upon a task that I would complete without fail the following day. If I succeeded, I would decide on a slightly more difficult task the next evening; if I failed, then I would choose an easier task to get back on track. The key was to succeed consistently—day after day resolving on doing something and then actually doing it—thereby building mental strength, much as the performance of daily physical exercises builds physical strength. It was, he had learned from his counsellor and from experience, surprising how many people struggled with this mental strength training. This was why it was important to decide upon tasks that I was sure I would complete. What the task was didn’t matter: it could be something meaningful, such as writing a paragraph, or it could make no sense, such as moving a paperclip. All that mattered was doing it.
The straightforward, persuasive logic of the idea appealed to me. Because it was as meaningless and easy as a single press-up, and because Ben had mentioned it as an example, I decided to start the training with the paperclip task. Before going to bed I placed one paperclip on one side of the desk and resolved to move it to the other side the next day. I took to bed an expectant faith that this simple act would begin clearing a path, a path of fulfilled resolution and mental fortitude, that would direct me out of the wilderness. And yet the following day, and the day after that too, I failed to move the paperclip. Did I just forget? Was I being self-defeating? Was I incurably lazy? I did not understand. A mysterious, inner resistance was rendering me incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks. Tearfully I suggested to Ben that I was a lost cause.
“No, you’re not a lost cause,” he replied. “You should never think that. But perhaps we could introduce a variation on the approach that might help. Perhaps if there were certain consequences for failure, you might discover an incentive to succeed. Mild consequences, but ones you would remember and would help you focus your mind.”
I asked him what he meant, but he refused to elaborate, only indicating that he would give some thought to appropriate consequences. “But you’re going to move the paperclip tomorrow, aren’t you?” he said. “That will make it unnecessary for me to devise consequences and for you to learn what they may be.”
Ben returned home from work late the following evening. I had already eaten the pasta salad he had prepared the previous day, and I was lazing in my pyjamas on the sofa watching television. He kissed me and went upstairs to take a shower. Twenty minutes later he came back down to the living room with a serious look on his face. “You didn’t move the paperclip,” he said. “It’s in exactly the same place now as it was when I left this morning.”
“Oh god, I completely forgot,” I said with genuine surprise. “I really meant to move it, honestly. It was even on my mind a couple of times, but I was downstairs at the time and thought I’d do it later.”
“But the point is that you didn’t do it later. You didn’t do it at all.”
“I could move it now,” I suggested.
“No, it’s too late now. The purpose of the exercise is that you shouldn’t need to be told to do things, but that you develop mental strength and self-discipline. No, you’ve failed the task today. Yesterday we agreed that we would introduce consequences for failure. Is that something you are still prepared to try?”
“Yes,” I nodded uncertainly. “But what…?”
“I’d like you to open my briefcase. Inside you’ll find a plastic bag, and inside that you’ll find an object. Unwrap that and bring it to me.”
I walked across the room to his briefcase and took out an unbranded black plastic bag. Out of that I pulled a light, flat object wrapped in paper. I unpeeled the paper—and took a sharp intake of breath at the black leather item I saw in my hands.
“You know what that is, don’t you?” Ben asked.
“Yes…,” I replied. “It’s a… it’s a paddle.”
“And you understand why I’ve bought it?”
“Because you’re going to… to spank me,” I said slowly.
“And do you agree that you ought to be spanked?” I nodded slightly, remembering the few, and enjoyable, occasions when he had playfully slapped my bottom during sex. “If so,” he continued, “come here and hand me the paddle.”
An aura of relaxed authority and gentle power surrounded him as he sat on the sofa. He had never looked so attractive. Without a second thought, I walked over and passed him the paddle. He looked at it, turning it over in his hands, before resting it on the arm of the sofa. “First I’m going to put you over my knee,” he said, “and give you a hand spanking. Then you’re going to receive six strokes of the paddle.”
Compliantly I leaned forward as he eased me over his lap. He manoeuvred me so that my bottom was raised. I waited, tense and a little thrilled, ready to receive the first smack. Instead, I felt his fingers inside the waistband of my pyjama bottoms and then the sensation of them being pulled down to my knees. I quietly gasped at my position: submissively held over Ben’s lap, my bare backside positioned to be punished. A second later I felt his palm land firmly on one cheek, quickly followed by a slap to the other cheek. Then again and again, calmly and firmly, rhythmically and without pause, he spanked me for two or three minutes, sending waves of tingling, warm pain rippling over the soft cheeks of my bottom. Finally he stopped and told me to stand up. I did so, rubbing my sore bottom gently. He picked up the paddle.
“Now bend over the arm of the sofa,” he said. “I’m going to give you six strokes of the paddle, three on each cheek.”
My pyjama bottoms around my knees, impeding my movement, I shuffled gingerly to the side of the sofa and bent over its armrest, stretching my arms out in front of me. My heart skipped as he tapped the leather against my exposed bottom.
“You’ll move the paperclip tomorrow, won’t you Wendy?” he said.
“Yes, I promise,” I said.
“Because the next time you forget I’ll give you twelve strokes. Let’s begin.”
The leather struck firmly against one cheek, sending a stinging rush through my bottom. When the second stroke landed hard on the other cheek I let out a soft gasp. Gritting my teeth, I silently counted off the next two strokes. I let out a low cry of pain as the fifth stroke landed loudly and firmly against my throbbing behind, then a louder yell when the final stroke of the leather smacked hard against my tender, bare flesh. I lay very still, as the stinging pain danced across my behind, before being replaced by the gentle touch of Ben’s caressing hands.
“You can stand up now,” he said. “The punishment is over.”
I did as he said. He turned me around, embracing me warmly and tightly, kissing my neck lovingly. Then he lifted my pyjama top over my head, lay me on the sofa and pulled my pyjama bottoms off. I opened my legs, my pussy wet and wanting him, his tongue, his cock. There on the sofa, my bottom tingling from my spanking, we made beautiful, passionate love.
The next day, the faint soreness of my bottom serving as a reminder, I moved the paperclip. And I did so again the following day. Then, on the day after that, I stood at the desk, about to pick the paperclip up. But instead I turned around and walked out of the study, the paperclip untouched and unmoved. For the rest of that day I waited, eager and impatient, for Ben to return home and discover my failure, and for the consequences that would inevitably follow. He did not disappoint me, neither that evening nor on the two subsequent days when I had failed in my small task.
“I thought this might happen,” he said, rubbing my sore bottom after my third consecutive spanking. “It’s almost as if you want to be spanked.” I remained silent, my slight blush unseen. “Be honest with me, Wendy. Do you enjoy being spanked?”
“Yes,” I said, quietly and a little ashamed. “I love it. I absolutely love it. Is that wrong of me?”
He went to the sofa and asked me to sit on his lap, my pyjama bottoms dangling around my ankles. “No, of course it’s not,” he said. “I thought you would. I hoped you would. But it means we’ll have to adapt our approach. Starting from tomorrow, you’ll be spanked if you successfully move the paperclip. If you fail, then no spanking. How does that sound?”
“It sounds wonderful.” I put my hands around his neck and kissed him. I whispered in his ear: “Yes, spank me to reward me, I know that will work.”
And the rewards did work. Over the following week I moved the paperclip every day. Gradually we introduced more difficult tasks, and, to encourage and motivate me with those, we bought a cane, the stinging strokes of which I sincerely strived to avoid. But we never stopped the paperclip task, not even when I returned to my thesis and completed it, not even when I published my first book, not even when I applied for and was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship, not even when I no longer needed to build my mental strength because I could carry out almost every task I set my mind to.
I’m looking at the paperclip now, the same paperclip that has been on this desk for nearly five years. As soon as I finish typing this sentence I will move it across the desk and then wait with excited anticipation for Ben to return home and punish me.
[Inspiration for the mental strength exercise came from Mark Forster, Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play (2000).]