Saunders calls to see me on Saturday morning. I haven’t done anything wrong; I don’t think I have. But I knock on the door his office with a sense of trepidation a different girl may not have been feeling right now. We’ve had our battles, the Housemaster and I, and I haven’t won many of them.
“Come in, Sammy,” he says. He’s smiling; it’s a bit of a relief. “Take a seat. I’d like to discuss something with you. Feel free to refuse when you hear my offer.”
Oh. Not a spanking, then. I sit down on the soft chair reserved for visitors who are in his good books.
“I’d like you to be my Head of House next year,” he says.
My heart skips a beat. I imagine myself with a prefect’s badge on my lapel. It’s not an image I’ve ever dared dwell on.
“That’s, uh, that’s a surprise, sir.” I speak cautiously, as though manoeuvring a minefield. He wouldn’t be landing such a gift in my lap if there wasn’t a big “but” attached.
“Not that much of a surprise, surely,” he says; one of his eyebrows crawls upward. “Academically, you are one of the strongest girls in the house. You are well-liked. The younger girls look up to you. You must have considered this yourself.”
“Not really.” I thought I might get to be a prefect, possibly, if he were in a good mood, but head prefects are exalted beings. Lisa Torrens, the current Head of House, is so perfect in every way she may as well be cast from marble. “You see, sir, my discipline record…”
I trail off when I see him nod. He knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not a hardened rule-breaker, but somehow I’m always in trouble. Maybe I’m unlucky, or maybe I’m just bad and don’t know it. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been slippered, caned and variously spanked by teachers and prefects alike; not all of these times have ended up on my file, but there’s plenty there to make it an interesting read.
“I’m glad you recognise this may be a problem,” he says. “That said, I would like to work on it with you, if you are willing to make an effort.”
“Work on it? Sir, you can’t exactly erase it.”
“No. But we still have two terms before it’s time to appoint the prefects. If your behaviour improves in the meantime, both the Headmistress and I will be willing to overlook your less than perfect past. It is not going to be an easy journey, which is why I told you that I’m prepared to accept a refusal. Do you want to be a Head of House, Samantha?”
I hadn’t known I wanted it until the opportunity was dangled in front of my face, but now that I’ve imagined myself with a badge on my lapel, giving it up would be a painful, bitter wrench. I imagine what my parents would say. What the girls would say. I imagine the freedom, the power, the privileges. The private study, the late curfew, the respect.
I do want it. Desperately.
“I’d like that, sir. I think.”
“Well, you’ll have to be sure, because saying ‘yes’ carries with it certain… conditions.”
Ah. Here comes the big “but”. “Like what, sir?”
“As I said, I’m willing to work with you on your behaviour, but I realise you can’t change your habits overnight. You will need a certain amount of encouragement. To this end, I’m afraid you will find yourself under a lot more supervision than you’re used to. You and I will have regular review meetings, daily at first, then, perhaps, at longer intervals. You will have to tell me what you have achieved since we’d last met, and the answer ‘nothing’ is not something I expect to hear. If you fall short, you will be punished. And I don’t mean to discourage you, Sammy, but it’s likely to result in a lot of punishment, particularly at first. I’m not unreasonable, but I can’t afford to be too forgiving under the circumstances.”
“That… just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, sir.”
“But I notice you’re not refusing.”
I am not. All this punishment – it sounds terrible, sure, yet maybe I’ll manage not to earn much of it. Maybe all that glorious personal attention from Saunders will stop the yearning inside my chest that pushes me, spinning, out of control. And the rewards… oh, the rewards.
“I think I can do it,” I tell him earnestly. “That is, if you mean it, sir.”
He doesn’t hesitate for a second, even though I expect him to. “I mean it in all seriousness, Sammy. I’m glad to have you on board.”
He gets up and extends a hand; I rise to shake it. There is no drum roll, but it feels like there should be. He keeps a hold of my hand, and solemnly looks me in the eye.
“I believe we have something to attend to now.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“I believe you need to start with an open slate. I could ask you to tell me how you have spent your time recently; whether there are any issues I should be dealing with, and punish you for each of them, like I will in our future meetings. Or I could assume there is a small number of things for which you deserve to be punished, and wipe the slate clean with a single hard caning. Which would you prefer?”
I feel sick, and want to yank my hand away and leave. Yet, I’m not surprised, not really. I imagine the shiny badge waiting for me at the end of this. I imagine Daddy’s incredulous face when I tell him that I’ve been appointed Head of House. Oh god, I hate the cane.
“One caning will do it, sir.”
A little squeeze of my hand. “Brave girl. Thank you. Unfortunately, you know the procedure; please go ahead.”
Oh, don’t I now the procedure. I take off my blazer and hang it over the back of the chair. Teeth clenched, I unzip my kilt, push it down my legs, step out of it. I’ve been here so many times, and yet my face is flaming. Saunders isn’t even looking; he’s by the cane rack on the wall, picking out his implement.
I step up to his desk and bend forward, fingers curling around the edge. Normally at this point there would be a lecture, a call-and-response of my list of sins and tearful apologies, but this time I’m not yet crying, and he doesn’t know what exactly I have done. I don’t dwell on my misdeeds either, imagining instead a slate covered in cursive writing, and Saunders magicking it all away with a swipe of the cane, like a wizard with a crook-handled wand.
“I would like you to concentrate on what a good girl you are going to be from now on, Samantha,” he says gently. I feel his hands on the waistband of my knickers, dragging them down to mid-thigh: the final part of the ritual before the pain starts. “We will turn a new leaf, and write your new future together. Yes?”
“Yes, sir.” My teeth are clenched to stop them from chattering.
“Twelve of the best. To make sure you remember our discussion.”
Twelve! Only once have I had that many, when the police brought me back from an excursion into town; I’d been throwing rocks into the river, but accidentally hit a boat, and got into a fight with college students rowing it. “Yes, sir.” This comes out as a whimper.
The first crack of the cane: always a surprise. I never remember how much it hurts. A gasp escapes my lips, and I clench harder at the edge of the desk. A second stroke, just as hard; my eyes start watering. I can’t believe how hard he’s caning me, without even knowing whether I’ve done anything. I think of my slate, the slate of my sins; it doesn’t feel clean yet, and I wonder whether he knows just how hard he needs to strike. I wish it was easier. I wish…
I’ve lost count. I think we’re midway, but maybe there’s more to go. Pain comes in waves; the strokes are loud and scary. “Good girl,” says Saunders quietly; I start crying just as he says it, and sob my way through the rest of the beating, like I haven’t cried from any punishment before. I hear him tell me that the following stroke is the last one, but hardly register it. The stroke itself brings another surge of pain, but I feel no relief that it’s over. I can hardly believe it’s the end.
“You can get up, Sammy,” says the Housemaster. “You have taken your punishment very well, and I believe it will do you a world of good. Come on now. Good girl.”
I think of the slate again. It feels clean, and I’m afraid to breathe, in case it makes the writing reappear. I take a cautious breath. My painful peace doesn’t shatter. I unbend and pull my knickers up over my welted cheeks. Saunders has put the cane back on the rack, and has turned to look out of the window, giving me the privacy to get dressed. As though it matters any more that I’m standing here in just my uniform shirt and knickers.
He gives me a few minutes to do up all the zips and buttons, and then turns towards me with a smile, his hand extended in the final part of the ritual. I shake it, more firmly than I ever have at this stage. “Thank you for my punishment, sir.”
“You’re welcome, Samantha. I’m very pleased that you have chosen to work towards a worthy goal. I will be expecting you here tomorrow at six in the evening, with a report of your progress and activities between now and that time. I will be seeking alternative reports, and keeping an eye on you myself, but I hope that you can give me an honest report nonetheless. And I hope it doesn’t come to any more punishment any time soon.”
“Yes, sir. So do I.”
Twelve parallel lines throb under my skirt. I say a final good-bye, and float out of the office, the best-behaved girl this school has ever known.