By Faith Ashlin (Guest Blogger)
Have you ever read a book that had you arguing with the characters? One where you can't stop yourself giving them advice? Not long ago I read a story that had me telling – or, much to my family's bemusement, shouting out loud – my opinion at the poor people in the pages. I even had to put the book down a couple of times because I'd reacted so strongly to it; stomping off in a huff until I'd calmed down and could start reading again.
It wasn't that I didn't like the book, oh no, I thoroughly enjoyed it and had fallen in love with the characters. The story had me so involved I couldn't stop thinking about it and I was neglecting all the important things that had to be done now, now, now, as well as staying up late, reading. I'd turned back into the naughty kid my mum scolded for reading under the covers with a torch. But I couldn't stop; I was living and breathing the story.
I was thinking about it at the supermarket, when hubby was telling me about his (boring) day at the office and in important meetings. Whenever I was forced to do other things I was tingling with anticipation to get back to it.
I absolutely love it when a book does that to me because it’s magical. Only this time, as well as loving the story, I was also cross with it – the story, not the author because causing a reaction like that meant they'd done their job really well.
My reaction to it is what kick-started me to write my new story A Slow Process of Understanding. I wanted to take the same situation and twist it my way, make the characters react the way I wanted them to. The book I'd read was a fantastic slave story but I kept getting annoyed, thinking, 'I wouldn’t react like he did. I’d be plotting my revenge!' or 'why did you do that? Why didn't you do...'
Now, I'll admit I can be a stroppy cow at times – just ask my hubby – but I can't imagine falling hopelessly in love with my owner, if I were a slave. I’d be seething with anger, no matter how carefully I had to hide it. Even if I were treated well, I’d still resent my owner and the power he had over me, especially, as in this case, I'd been free before becoming a slave.
I then started thinking about the mind-set of the owner. How would I feel/react if I’d been brought up in a society that accepted slavery? One where it was common place and unremarkable. I think it’s too easy to say I’d see how wrong it was and act differently. I’m sure that during Roman times people didn’t spend their days worrying about the morals of slavery – even if they were truly decent people. I think they would be more likely to simply accept it, the same way the whole society accepted it.
Attitudes change over time and place and I think it's too simple to ascribe our views to other circumstances. Recently there was a documentary on TV about television in the UK during the 1970's. The casual racism, sexism and homophobia were truly shocking and yet, often, back then, it was meant to be funny. It really was a different time.
Thinking about the slave story again, I realised that just because a character accepts being an owner doesn’t make him a bad person. He could be a really sweet guy who does what he thinks is the right thing, the good thing, in a situation that everyone else thinks is okay.
So, if the good-guy owner gets a slave, how would things work between them?
How would I react if I were the slave or the owner?
I can understand that owner and slave can become very close; but real, equal full-on love? No, I can’t see that. I think the power dynamic would be too unbalanced.
But I adore a happy ending so I was interested in how I could bring a couple together with that kind of awful, unequal dynamic at the start. I wanted them both to see things from the other's point of view, to really understand the situation so they could fall in the kind of deep, ever-lasting love that I dream of.
I thought that was a huge challenge but one I was eager to attempt. I’d have to change mind-sets, diffuse the anger and, somehow, bring them together in a loving, caring and, most importantly, equal relationship. Like I said, no easy task. I think the result is one of the best things I've ever written.
A Slow Process of Understanding by Faith Ashlin was released by Totally Bound on December 26th.
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How does a world that accepts slavery affect both master and slave? Can two people build a new life for themselves with a start like theirs?
It’s a world like this one except for the all-powerful State that’s very firmly in control and the fact that slavery is legal. Jimmy had never really thought about it or the fight for freedom going on around him. He was too busy enjoying his privileged life as an actor on a sci-fi show.
But what is he meant to do when he’s forced to permanently bond to a slave he doesn’t want just because he made one silly, drunken mistake? Does it change who he is, what he is?
Trouble is, Jimmy isn’t sure who he was to start with. He’d never thought about it.
And what about his slave, Nate? Can a slave force Jimmy into learning something about himself?
‘It’s not fucking fair,’ was all that kept going through Jimmy’s mind. Over and over on repeat. It wasn’t fucking fair—not fair he was here, not fair he’d be here for weeks, not fucking fair he was being forced to bond with some guy he didn’t even know. How could something like that ever be fair?
Okay, so maybe he’d stepped out of line and said things he shouldn’t, to people he shouldn’t. Said them long and loud. But he’d been drunk, and everyone knew he was an arsehole when he was drunk. He’d just kind of assumed they knew he was he was a friendly, didn’t-mean-it kind of arsehole.
And okay, maybe he had hit someone, but he hadn’t meant that either. He was the kind of drunk that did stupid things they wouldn’t normally—things they didn’t mean. Hit people they didn’t mean to. It wasn’t personal. He hadn’t known who the guy was. Just some random kid, who just happened to have a powerful mother.
Was it such a crime to get drunk and say things he shouldn’t, in front of people he shouldn’t? And hit people he shouldn’t?
Yeah, actually even he knew it was a crime, but shit, this was a hell of a punishment.
He was a good guy really, only the authorities hadn’t seen it like that, and now he was fucking stuck here. Even the minor celebrity that came with being on a TV show with plastic spaceships hadn’t bought him any leeway. But he should have known that, known what a hard, unforgiving bastard The State could be.
Now he had to pay for his stupidity. Nothing else to do now but suck it up and pay his dues.
But it might not be all bad. They’d told him he was going to be bonded with this guy—which was as near as damn it to fucking marriage—but the man would still be Jimmy’s slave. Jimmy would own him, be accountable and responsible for him. That was supposed to be part of his punishment. To teach him to be responsible, so in future, he’d act that way toward The State.
Owning a slave. That was a weird concept, but there could be positives.
He wasn’t about to treat a slave the way some people did. He’d seen it—at parties, around, hell, on the streets. Slaves bent over and fucked, passed around for anyone’s pleasure. Treated as slabs of meat. He wasn’t about to do anything like that. He’d be fair, protect him from the perverts. He’d be responsible, just like they wanted, even if it wasn’t fair.
They both knew the score, knew there’d have to be sex, but he knew how to treat a person right. Slaves were people, no matter what The State said. He’d take the free, no-strings sex as a bonus. But people, anyone, deserved to be treated right.
He might not have understood the freedom movement, but he could help one man live an easier life. He’d be doing his small part to make the world a more decent place. He’d be responsible and accept his punishment like a man. Once he got through prison.
That made him feel a little better about everything.
He just hoped the guy didn’t look like the tail end of a rhinoceros.
Two-and-a-half hours later, just as Jimmy was beginning to think that nothing would ever happen and that the silence would eat his brain away, his cell was unlocked. Three men held the door open for him, the first one pointing to the door. “It’s time,” he said.
Jimmy was led along numerous corridors, his hands sweating, his belly rolling every step of the way. He knew what was coming. He’d be all right, but still, shit. He rubbed his palms on the back of his jeans but the moisture was replaced as soon as he wiped it away.
On into a court room with more people, all the equipment laid out ready. Hell, this was real. This was really going to happen.
He was taken to the far end, stood in front of a lectern, then a court official murmured to him, “We just have to wait for your slave to be brought in. He needed medical treatment. He’ll be here shortly.”
Then the door at the back opened again, and Jimmy twisted round, straining to see as a group of people made their way forward. Two enormous men were half leading, half carrying a guy who was dragging one leg behind him. Jimmy’s eyes were drawn down to where the guy’s jeans had been raggedly cut open above his knee. His foot, ankle and lower leg were covered with a thick plaster cast, his bare toes sticking out—his bare, filthy toes. Jimmy wrinkled his nose in disgust as his gaze moved up. The rest of the guy was just as dirty, mud encrusted and grungy. His hair wasn’t much better, nor his face, but he sure wasn’t bad looking under the dirt.
Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as it could have been.
Before Jimmy could take in anymore there was a commotion and the judge entered. His thick robes and stupid hat may have been over the top and melodramatic, but they had the right effect. They brought an air of seriousness—of things being out of his control and inevitable—and Jimmy felt himself start to shake.
“Verdict has been passed,” the judge spoke solemnly, the majesty of the law behind every word. “I’m here to carry out sentence.” He studied Jimmy as a small hand-held machine was pushed in front of him. “Sign your name,” the judge instructed.
Taking the stylus that was thrust at him, Jimmy fought to keep his hand from shaking. He had to do this right, make his writing legible. This was important. This was permanent.
He exhaled hard, nostrils flaring, and wrote his name.
The judge nodded and turned to an official. “Bring the slave forward.” The guy with the cast was hauled forward, his right hand pushed onto the lectern, his fingers splayed. The machine was fitted into place over the back of his hand and a button pressed. He grunted and a flash of pain hit his face, but he quickly pulled himself together, standing as immobile as he could. The only sign of anything wrong was the way his chest heaved.
“Second brand,” the judge ordered, and the guy’s face went blank.
One of the men who had brought him in now braced the slave on the side with the broken foot. The guy leaned in, gripping on with one hand. He had no choice if he didn’t want to fall over, as one of the other men undid his jeans pushing them and his underwear down his thighs. The man moved behind the slave, and Jimmy caught sight of pale freckled skin and a soft belly as his shirt was lifted and held up. Again the machine was brought forward and placed on his left hip, over the pubic bone. When the button was pressed this time, the grunt was deeper but more contained.
The slave’s shirt fell down as he was steadied on his feet and he was left to pull the rest of his clothes back into place himself. Someone pushed Jimmy next to him before they were both turned to face the lectern.
“Now for the bonding,” the judge spoke to Jimmy. “You will own your slave but, as you are also to be bonded, you will have extra responsibilities, even more than in an equal marriage. Do you understand?”
“Do you accept this bonding as the right and proper recompense to your benevolent State for your crimes?”
Jimmy knew better than to argue as his heart thumped against his chest. “I do.” They really were going to go all the way through with this.
“Raise your hand.”
Jimmy held his hand out, palm upwards. His family would kill him.
The judge turned to the slave. “Do you accept?” No niceties or explanations but he had to be heard to say yes.
There was silence and Jimmy couldn’t stop himself glancing over. The slave stared straight ahead as he swallowed deep and hard. Then there was a huge hand on the back of his neck, fingers arching and pushing into the vulnerable tendons at the side. Pushing and pushing and…the veins were standing out either side of the fingers, and Jimmy thought he could see the blood held back, pumping just under the surface and… “Yes,” the guy said, and the clamp on his neck was lifted away.
“Raise your hand.” The judge didn’t even look at him anymore—slaves weren’t worth the effort.
The guy lifted his hand, holding it palm down just over Jimmy’s. The court official moved forward and wrapped a leather cord round their combined hands, pushing them flesh to flesh as the judge enunciated carefully something frighteningly legal. Jimmy couldn’t hear it for the rushing of the blood in his ears.
“You are now bonded,” the judge said, as the official tied the cord tightly. “You are now mates.” A beat pounded in Jimmy’s head, his mouth dried out and his belly clamped. His mum would cry for a month.
The judge was already getting up ready to leave. “Take them to their cell. Assessment in…” He consulted his book. “One month.”
Jimmy dropped his hand. The warm palm tied to his went with it. The implication of that hit him like a brick, and he thought he might just fall over. But the men who had brought them in were trying to usher them out. With a firm hand pressed to his back, Jimmy took a couple of steps forward and was almost immediately brought to a stop. He glanced round. The guy really was filthy but his eyes were…
“I can’t walk properly,” his slave said quietly.
“No, right. Of course you can’t.” Jimmy went to support him on the side of his injured leg but stopped, turned to the court official. “Do I help him? Am I allowed, seeing as he’s my slave?”
“No, you’re not allowed to give aid or assistance to a slave. Let them do it.” The official nodded toward the men around them. Jimmy realized for the first time that they were slaves as well. On the back of their hands, instead of an individual’s signature, there was a State department’s stamp. They were owned by the state. One moved forward and caught Jimmy’s slave’s arm over his shoulder, taking his weight.
“You can untie that now.” The official pointed to the cord. “But keep it. It’s another sign of ownership and bonding. Some people like to tie it round their slave’s neck.”
Jimmy’s fingers fumbled as he fought to undo the knots. He didn’t want to tie it anywhere. He stuffed it in his pocket as he followed the slaves out and down more corridors to a prison wing. They stopped outside a metal door with a number twenty-two on it, waiting as it was unlocked. Then it was opened and he was steered inside, his slave was brought in after him and dumped unceremoniously on the floor by the wall. The door was locked behind them.
The banging echoed inside Jimmy’s skull. His mum was going to make more noise than that when she found out.
Nothing else to do but make the best of it.
“Well.” He walked forward, assessing the space. “I guess as prison cells go this could be worse.” The room was rectangular in shape, a small table and two chairs at one end, big bed at the other, a bank of windows along the short end. Off to one side was a door leading to a tiny bathroom. The whole place was scruffy. There were the scrapes and scratches of other occupants everywhere, but clean enough, functional and better than he’d expected. “What do you think?”
When there was no answer, he turned so he could see the man on the floor. “You okay?” Still no answer. “Hey, I asked you a question.”
The man had stretched out his injured leg and was rubbing above the plaster cast. He raised his eyes a little, licking at his bottom lip. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how this works.”
“How what works?”
“My being your slave. Do you really want to know what I think? If I’m okay?”
Jimmy stopped then, suddenly conscious of everything. There were rules for how to treat a slave. They were meant to be followed all the time, whether in private or public. It was his turn to lick at his lips as he turned in a circle, studying the room again in a completely different way. “You think they have a camera or some kind of microphone in here? That they’re watching what we do?”
“Are you asking me? Am I meant to answer?” It was said softly, hesitantly.
The question had been more Jimmy thinking out loud than anything else but now he wanted to know. “Yes. How private do you think this place is?”
The man—Jimmy’s slave, and that idea still blew his mind—examined the place, ceiling, walls, fittings. Missing nothing. “There’s no camera, no mic I can see and no obvious place to hide one. But then, why would they bother hiding it?”
“True. I guess we don’t have to watch ourselves all the time then, that’s one good thing. I think that…” Again he stopped, hands on hips as he stared down. “I can’t carry on like this. What’s your name?”
“Nate,” the man said simply.
“Nate, Nat, that’s nice. I’m Jimmy, Jimmy Stephens.” He stuck his arm out, ready to shake hands. Nate stared at it for a moment before holding out his own, palm down.
“I know,” Nate said, looking at the back of his hand. Jimmy’s eyes were drawn to it as well. There, amid the raised, red, angry looking puffy skin, was his name, clearly visible in black, burnt-in lettering.
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About Faith Ashlin
About Faith Ashlin
When Faith was clearing out her attic many years ago, she found a book she’d written as a ten-year-old. On rereading it she realised that it was the love story of two boys. Over the years her fascination with the image of beautiful young men, coiled together as they fell head over heels in love, became a passion for her.
Since that first innocent book—written in purple sparkly pen—she has written many stories, set in varied worlds, but always with two men finding their way to happiness.
You can find me at…
Email faithashlin [at] gmail [dot] com