I know that many readers first discovered our writing via our stories. Although my stories site hasn’t been updated for way too long (have patience, dear friends), I do continue to write longer pieces fairly regularly. Let you feel like you’re missing out, here’s my latest – comments welcome!
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
To each girl, a number. No names, from here on. One to six, read out, the order decreed by the sheet of paper pinned to the top of the punishment officer’s clipboard. No need for differentiation. The offences that had brought them to this point, here, in this narrow corridor, were almost irrelevant now. All they had in common was their sentence: today’s was a fifty-stroke parade.
“Line up in order!’ A scrambling, as girls half-pushed, half-politely-stood- aside-lest-they-were-being-watched.
And then the cold instruction to strip, in the officer’s clear, clipped voice. Some had felt the nudity to be unnecessary, when the law had been before parliament. Its proposers had been adamant: anything that might offer a clue as to origin, class, wealth was unacceptable. ‘Equality of punishment for all’, they insisted resolutely.
Hands trembling, the girls complied. The more sensible of them had worn T-shirts, jogging pants, slip-on shoes. The wiser; the ones who’d done their research; the ones who’d dared to anticipate what it might actually be like. The terrified fair-haired lass at the end struggled with the buttons of her well-pressed designer blouse, regretting her choice in the same way her neighbour’s choice of snugly-fitted trousers would later seem profoundly ill-advised.
They laid their clothes behind them on the narrow bench. Neatly. Trying – far, far too late, of course – to make a good impression.
“Face the front. Hands by your side.” The officer walked along the trembling queue, as if inspecting the guard of honour. Bared girls suppressed reflexes – resisting the temptation to cover themselves from his penetrating gaze. He paused, allowing them a final moment in the anti-chamber; a final respite before the inevitable. And then he pushed at the door: “Follow me in silence, and line up in order once you are inside.”
The bright lights of the punishment room took them by surprise after the dimly-lit corridor. The same smell of municipal disinfectant perfumed the air. High-ceiling. Windowless. Locked away from the rest of the world.
Waiting for them: two guards, wearing the blue uniform of the State Judiciary. One at each end of the room. Tall, thick-set. The sort of men who could, would whip girls until they sobbed, without a moment’s hesitation.
And also waiting, the six punishment blocks, evenly spaced. Crafted from oak, to the government specification: upturned U’s, two feet apart, each bolted firmly to the floor. A plain wooden rectangle spanned the horizontal gap. Adjustable, so that each offender was positioned at entirely the right height: the details on their forms had been noted, their punishment positions carefully prepared to await their arrival.
A terrified girl waited behind each. Two weeks, more, since their court appearances: the moment they had been dreading: trying to imagine, trying not to imagine, ever since they’d heard the magistrate’s words. The moment when their hopes had vanished, their fears come true, when he’d informed them that they were to be flogged. The moment that optimistic friends, family had assured them on the way into the courtroom would not be theirs.
“Step forward. Lean over the bench. Hold on at the front.”
Instant obedience, stretching forward into the uncompromising position.
The punishment officer walked behind them, pushing legs apart with his feet, reaching down and securing ankles tightly with the leather straps. He turned and strolled back along the front of the line, taking wrists, pulling hands downwards until they clenched the foot of the frames: tightening their positions.
He stepped forward, surveying the line. “You have each been sentenced to fifty strokes of the cane. You will remain in position throughout. Failure to comply may result, at my discretion, in you being brought back here at a later date for further punishment.” He paused, allowing them to soak up the importance of compliance, lest they were in any doubt. And then he gave the order: “Guards: please begin.”
The girls at either extreme suffered first: numbers one and six, howling through the lashes. Rhythmically, systematically, in unison the guards the marked the court’s displeasure from opposite ends of the line. One right-handed: the other left. Symmetrical, almost. Pausing between strokes; lifting the cane high; sparing no energy.
“Eight, nine, ten.” Hardly started, really: for all the obvious anguish, not yet even beginning to approach the severe punishment that the magistrate had decreed them to deserve.
The punishment officer kept count, as if taking pleasure in each excruciating blow. One cut, three, would have sufficed to send these girls home punished enough never to darken the court’s portals again. But one, three would not have punished sufficiently, nor deterred other potential offenders.
“Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.” Girl one seemed resigned to her fate: wailing, apologising, Girl six begged for forgiveness. None was forthcoming. As she must have known.
Girl two was sobbing too, the squirming reactions of her thrashed neighbour confirming her own worst fears.
“Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.” The other girls, bent over, were now resolutely staring at the floor in front of them. They’d looked round, of course, at the start. Assessed what would soon be theirs: tried to calculate the pain from the height of the rod before it descended, the look on the faces of the punisher and punishee. Assessed, then tried to forget immediately. Tried, failed, as every stroke fell, as it would on their own backsides within minutes.
“Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. STOP! NEXT OFFENDER!”
But… But… Relief for the two flogged girls at the unexpected respite was tempered with confusion. “But I’ve been sentenced to fifty” – unspoken, of course. Blended with a flash of the wildly optimistic: “Have they forgotten?” Mixed with the sheer panic of the next two offenders, their minutes-away floggings now entirely imminent.
Girls two and four. The same procedure. The guards stepping one place inside, nearer to the centre of the line. The same merciless severity, doing the court’s cruel bidding. The same howls of all-too-late repentance. The same red stripes, criss-crossing pale skin. The same weals rising up, an extra dimension to their punished buttocks.
And the punishment officer counted, and the rods lifted high, and the blows fell.
“Fifteen.” Fighting the pain, trying to kick out as the strokes landed; the binds around their ankles lashing them into place.
“Twenty,” as girls three and four tensed: counting down, as their compatriots still counted up to the “Twenty-five”, their merciful release.
The guards stood close now. Face-to-face. A momentary glance: a meeting of eyes. Right hand, left hand, raised. Cracked down, so hard, girls three and four now bearing their first stripe, their second line, their third angry weal, their first sobs and cries and “Forgive me”s.
“Ten.” The point at which the flogging started to become unbearable. But for the other four girls, the time for their breaths to start to calm, to become more even: the pain, still excruciating, but crescendoing no more.
“Fifteen.” Almost over, for the majority of the girls. Yet the cruellest lashes just starting for the middle two.
“Twenty,” adding up one-by-painful-one to the twenty-fifth and the instruction to the guards to desist. They turned, paused, walked to the back of the room, out of sight of the girls. Silence descended, as even the final two victims tried to control their bawling.
The punishment officer, compere, conductor, walked along the front of the line. Looked down, lifted faces with his hand, admired the job well done.
Moved over to the front of the room once more. Picked up his clipboard. “NEXT OFFENDER!”
And the guards swapped sides, the cruel logic of the punishment becoming clear. Back-to-back now, they positioned themselves, before numbers three and four felt the harsh impact of their calculations: “Twenty-six”, with the tip landing on the opposite side to its twenty-five predecessors, “Twenty-seven” continuing to plot out the mirror-image, “Twenty-eight”, “Twenty-nine”, as the court’s anger at their offences started to move to an entirely different plane.
And girls one and six sobbed openly. The brave ones who’d gone first. The ones whose hopes had been lifted. The ones who had to wait…
“Fifty” done, and the guards paused. That two of the girls could draw breath, were over, had completed their tally, was hardly noticeable: the pain of the whipping was too severe, almost, for them to comprehend anything other than the searing, merging lines that burnt across their backsides.
And, in any case, girls two and five were now squealing, screaming their way to their stark half-century. Vows to be good, prayers to their gods, promises to their guards: there was no magic spell, no easing of the metronome, no lessening of the ever-increasing pain.
“Fifty.” A pause. The guards walked back to the rear of the room once again, delaying the already-delayed finale for girls one and six. The two men mopped their brows, then picked up their cane and marched back into position, the next blows falling almost as soon as they had arrived behind their tied victims.
Only two batches: twelve plus thirteen. Five lots of five: I can do that. Count down, do the maths, concentrate on the numbers, getting lower all the time. Blank one’s mind. Cry every fifth stroke. It’ll be almost done once they get to thirty. Every scheme, every calculation that the first, final girls had mentally computed as they’d waited, worth nothing as each individual lash cut in.
Drawn out. Taking forever. A countdown, finally, as the punishment officer counted up to the moment of release.
Six girls united. Punished girls. Beaten girls, released one by one from their leather restraints, reaching back to touch their whipped behinds then reaching forward again, that touch too agonising to bear.
Six girls who would never see one another again. From good homes, devastated parents waiting outside to pick up the pieces. From broken homes, arriving alone and leaving even more so. Intelligent, degree certificates proudly mounted on family walls; girls who’d struggled even to read the evidence against them.
Six girls, punished equally: justice, such as it was decreed, duly done. Left hand, whip: right hand, whip, all the way to the repentance that the magistrates had required.
© Abel 2007 – must not be reproduced without prior written permission