"We've recently tried a spot of S&M," said Mark with a sweep of the hand, which suggested that he'd been testing a new carpet cleaner rather than pushing back the barriers of erotic love. "Did it work?" wondered Claire. "It certainly freshened things up," Mark told us. "You just have to make sure that it doesn't get out of hand."
Although nobody chose to press Mark for further details, there were enough grunts of approval from around the table to suggest that most of us were only too well aware of the sexual delights that could accrue from a little judicious hanky-panky with a studded belt.
At the time, I managed to absent myself from the collusive atmosphere by vigorously attacking my American Hot, but it occurred to me afterwards that this would have been the ideal moment to raise the whole question of Norma.
I would have started by explaining that Norma and I were something of an item in the late 1970s. We were initially thrown together by a shared interest in humanistic psychology, but after long days working on a paper decrying the atomisation of the individual in laboratory investigations, it was inevitable that we found after-work solace in each others' wholesomeness.
We'd been finding such solace for about six months when Norma chose to bring up the deteriorating nature of the "sexual side" of our relationship. Perhaps, she suggested, it was time to spice up our nights with one of our daytime betes noires: a little experimentation.
Her frankness obviously demanded some more meaningful response than an embarrassed glance into the depth of my pint, so I found myself volunteering to find some textual advice on how we might accomplish our project and eventually returned home with an illustrated manual entitled The Handbook of Erotics. The massage section was rejected on the grounds that the large volume of oil involved might clog up the feathers in our new duvet, and we found ourselves settling almost by default on the S&M chapter. The book gave no explicit advice on role allocation, but as the large line drawing showed a woman flat on her back, Norma gamely agreed to retire to the bedroom and leave me to assemble the other essential ingredients.
"Bind your partner's ankles and wrists to the bedposts with silk scarves." It may have been the lack of silk scarves and the consequent need to use a pair of my greased Norwegian ski socks as substitutes, or perhaps the unavailability of bedposts on our double duvet, which meant that the bonds had to be stapled to the recently sanded wooden floor, but the final picture resembled not so much an erotic scenario as the aftermath of a seriously botched postmortem.
Matters weren't greatly improved when I proceeded to stage four and endeavoured to beat Norma gently with my trouser belt. It was difficult to feel erotically aroused when the arc described by the belt as it descended to the duvet so patently suggested not so much a sadistic encounter with a defenceless victim as a singularly innocuous bout of fly-fishing.
It seemed that Norma felt the same. "I don't like this at all. Please please stop it," she suddenly shouted. That was quite enough for me. Within seconds, I'd undone her bonds and was briskly re-threading my trouser belt. It was only when we were comfortably back in front of the television that she revealed the full extent of my S&M incompetence. "Look at the book," she said. "The bit after Sadist Starts Whipping. What does it say?" I slowly read the instruction aloud. "Stage Six. Masochist moans and says, 'I don't like this at all. Please please stop it'."