Now, who was it who asked for more of my stories on “Love our Lurkers” day recently? Harriet, Evie, you inspired me – with a little help from a certain dear friend, whose misbehaviour last week gave me just the idea.
You know, the folks around me on the late train from King’s Cross on Friday evening seemed so impressed at my dedication to work, as I sat typing into my laptop. If only they knew…
The perils of drink
Interruptions to class were rare, as if the teacher’s chamber was somehow sacrosanct: “do not disturb” the abiding motto. And the girls knew by now that those occasional knocks at the door – once, twice a term? – were inevitably harbingers of doom, announcing the arrival of a prefect with a message of imminent discomfort for one of their number.
The routine was the same: “My apologies, but Mr. ……. asked me to deliver an urgent message.” And the crisp envelope would be passed over to the teacher; the audience would hang on tenterhooks as if watching some awards ceremony in reverse – no winner of a statuette being revealed here, but rather the pronouncement of which girl was destined to face a most uncomfortable encounter.
And the teacher would shake his head solemnly, scanning the expectant, nervous faces. A pause for effect? A solemn revelation of the verdict: “It appears that Miss ….. is required in her Housemaster’s study.”
Sometimes the girl would be expecting it: all eyes would have swivelled to her as the prefect entered the room. So it was true? And he was going to cane her? And she’d be nervously tidying the pile of books on her desk even before her name echoed through the room, any vain hope extinguished by the sound of the knocks.
And on other occasions?
The moment of disbelief. Did he say me? The questions – what for, or (maybe) how did he know? The burning cheeks, embarrassed at the shocked stares of her classmates. Legs turning to stone, scarcely able to carry her to the door.
That long, long walk along the empty corridors, practising her excuses and her pleas for mercy, trying not to contemplate what would happen were they to prove unsuccessful.
Which rather took Jennifer aback, that Friday morning, then shocked her to the core as she realised what must have happened.
He usually offered girls a seat, as they discussed their report cards or their options for classes the following year. Made them feel welcome, at home, relaxed.
Not today. Today he’d left her standing, as he played with the letter in his hands.
“So I thought that I should perhaps call your father. Check with him that you had the ‘flu yesterday, necessitating a day off school but resulting in a most miraculous restoration of good health. Reassure myself that there’s nothing untoward going on.”
But a call wouldn’t reassure him. And Jenny didn’t want her father to know. Not now. Not ever.
“You don’t need to, sir. I mean, he’ll be in meetings…”
Her Housemaster raised an eyebrow.
She blustered on. “And he’ll just tell you that everything’s OK anyway, so I don’t see the need.”
“He will, will he?” He looked at the file on the desk. “531 7625.” Lifted the handset; started to punch in the numbers. Slowly, watching her reaction. Reading the digits as he went.
“No, sir? No what, sir?”
“No, he won’t tell you that he signed the letter, sir.”
“And why would that be, Miss Barlow?”
She covered her face in her hands. “Because he didn’t write it, sir.”
“I know he didn’t write it.”
“I know he didn’t sign it, because I have several copies of his handwriting in your file, none of which matches this particular document. And I can imagine why he didn’t sign it, because Mr. McKelvey saw you leaving the pub on Wednesday evening being propped up by two of your friends, in a state of what he described as ‘total inebriation’.”
He shook his head. “Not even the best medicines deal with the flu that quickly, Miss Barlow. So do tell me the truth, for a change.”
That smarted. “For a change?” She was a truthful girl; honest; trustworthy. Usually.
“I wasn’t feeling well, sir. I’d been up most of the night. And I didn’t want my father to know I’d been to the pub.”
“But you’re eighteen? He can’t stop you.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. But he doesn’t like me going.” Doesn’t like? Yes, that would be one (very understated) way of putting it.
“So you thought you would blame your hangover on the ‘flu, and forge his handwriting?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“I’m sure.” He stood; she always forget how tall he was. “Well, let’s get this dealt with. Bend over and touch your toes.”
Just like that? So sudden? She’d imagined some long drawn-out discussion. Forms to complete, lengthy lectures. An explanation of the procedure. A right of appeal. And yet now her fingers were brushing the cold black leather, the carpet was looming large, he was already walking behind her, and…
“Four strokes of the cane for missing a day’s school in such disgraceful circumstances.” And the first cut down on her before she’d really absorbed what he’d been saying. But she most certainly absorbed his message: not like the familiar belt, but striping a line across her, burning, engulfing her backside with pain.
And somehow, from the tales the other girls had told, she imagined the process taking forever. Long pauses; stern words. But the second stroke landed, and then the third, and before she knew it he was telling her to stand, and she was clutching her behind. And that was the other thing she’d never imagined: that it could hurt so badly.
Wiping away a tear, she apologised.
“The best apology will be if you learn from the experience, Miss Barlow,” came the retort as he returned the cane to its home beside his filing cabinet.
“Yes, sir, I will.”
“Now, Miss Barlow, we have a rule here with which you may be familiar that no girl may receive more than six strokes of the cane in any given day. So although we have dealt with your unauthorised absence, we will have to hold over punishing you for forging your note until Monday. Please report to me at morning break. And I should warn you that girls who lie are always punished on the bare.”
Monday? Bare? “But sir….”
“Thank you, Miss Barlow, that will be all.” And he reached into his drawer, pulled out a sheaf of marking, and studiously ignored her until she left.
The other girls were kind, even if she found their curiosity – the lowering of her knickers in the bathroom, the admiration of her stripes – to be intensely humiliating. But it was the done thing – the other girls’ perceived badge of bravery, her badge of shame. They hugged, cuddled, provided comforting chocolate, folded spare school sweaters for her to sit on for the afternoon.
But they couldn’t know about Monday.
They went shopping together on Saturday: Zara, H&M, Top Shop, Pizza Hut. They still hugged, smiled, supported.
But they couldn’t know about Monday.
They went to the cinema on Sunday. She couldn’t concentrate. They’d already forgotten.
And they couldn’t know about Monday.
A magnetic force held her back from entering the school gates; somehow she conquered it.
The Headmaster read out his customary list in the start-of-the-week assembly. Her name included, placed on public record: one of three convicts to have received the punishment of the court. No secrets here; no hiding. (And if one of them were to mention it to parents, and said parents were to tell her father…? Please, no…)
Mrs Thomas noticed her absent-mindedness in French.
Mr Chisolm commented on her lack of concentration in Maths.
Dr Tudor expressed disappointment at her wrong answers in History.
But they couldn’t know about morning break.
That was between her, and her Housemaster. He wasn’t there when she arrived; the seconds turned to minutes, the minutes turned to hours before he joined her and let her in. “Ah, Miss Barlow. Our unfinished business. I don’t think we have anything further to discuss, do we? Shall we get this over with?”
And no, they didn’t. Other than his instruction, this time, to remove her knickers and lift her skirt before bending over. His reminder that dishonesty was something of which he greatly disapproved, and his proclamation that “Six strokes is the only punishment that can be deemed appropriate in the circumstances.”
She could take them, though. She’d spend the weekend conquering the demons of her memories of Friday’s strokes; the stripes were still there, but the pain hadn’t been that bad, had it? Had it? Try and believe it, Jenny; that way you’ll get through.
And, as it turned out, they hadn’t been that bad. Not compared to these. The very first stroke brought tears to her eyes; excruciating, agonising, astonishing. By the third, she was crying. Not that that made him ease up, each blow in the sequence seemingly harder than its predecessor, until a sixth that made her cry out at the top of her voice.
He bade her adjust her uniform. “Let’s hope we don’t have to repeat this, Miss Barlow.” And this time, a gentle squeeze of her shoulder as he showed her out of the door, as if trying to comfort her to ease all of the discomfort he had just inflicted.
Her friends asked where she’d been. Noticed, despite the basin of cold water liberally applied to her face, that she’d been crying. But they couldn’t know; she couldn’t bear it.
At least, not until the following Monday. When she walked into assembly; when the Headmaster took the rostrum. When he started to read out the weekly roll of dishonour. When her name came first…
© Abel 2007