Christopher could feel a searing pain in his knuckle as he crushed it into the face of the opposing team’s centre-half.
Blood poured from the schoolboy’s nose as in agony he sank to his knees. His piercing scream drowned the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle. His nose could quite possibly be broken, Christopher didn’t care. It served him right.
It only took seconds for the referee to point to the dressing room. Sent off! For violent conduct.
Grim faced and unrepentant, the eighteen-year-old trudged off the pitch. As he passed his livid sports master, he heard the instruction, “Go to the changing room and wait for me there.”
Rain began falling as Christopher walked the hundred yards or so to the shower block. His heart was thumping; adrenalin rushed through his body and his anger would not abate. Their centre half had been kicking lumps out of him all through the match; was he really surprised that he had retaliated?
Once in the changing room Cristopher plonked himself down on a hard wooden bench; head lowered, almost to between his knees. Slowly, his breathing became more even as he regained some composure. Now, he had to contemplate his fate.
Five minutes later, the match over, his fellow schoolboy footballers filed into the room. Each in turn looked over at their disgraced colleague, but none had a word of support or comfort for him. To a man they had been genuinely shocked at the savagery of the attack. The poor boy was now on his way to hospital with a suspected broken cheekbone.
Christopher raised his head to acknowledge his friends but they would not meet his eye. Instead, hurriedly they stripped off their kits, grabbed towels and dashed to the showers, leaving Christopher to his fate.
The boy could not summon the will to follow the other players into the shower; instead he sat still, head in his hands, waiting for Mr Richardson, the sports master.
Mr Richardson was with his counterpart from St Anthony’s School. His own school, St Francis Independent Grammar School were the school’s guest that afternoon. Mr Richardson was both embarrassed and angry. Never in his twenty years as a schoolmaster had he witnessed such a spectacle. Yes, sometimes a boy would overstep the mark and tackle too heavily. Or a player would mistime a tackle and bring an opponent crashing down; cut off at the knees. But, never before had he seen such premeditated violence. If his pupil had punched a boy like that away from the playing field, he would certainly be facing a police charge and an appearance in the magistrates’ court.
Mr Richardson apologised profusely to Mr Stringer of St Anthony’s, but he recognised it would not be enough.
“We need to take severe action,” Mr Richardson told him. “And, we should do it right away.”
He knew that when his headmaster heard about the incident he would expect to also be told the boy had received an exemplary punishment: the thrashing of his life, at the very least.
“Can you lend me a cane, the heaviest that you have? I should beat the boy before we leave.”
Mr Stringer was taken aback by the request. Not that he didn’t expect Christopher to be punished, he did. But, he wanted the boy to be suspended or expelled from school at the very least for such an attack. A beating with a cane did not match the severity of the offence, and Mr Stringer said as much.
As the words came from his mouth his own headmaster, Dr Shorter appeared. “A cane?” he pondered when Mr Richardson asked again for a loan. Dr Shorter was uncertain. “A cane,” he repeated, as if weighing up options.
“No,” at this school a boy is beaten with a rattan if he misbehaves, breaks the rules, that kind of thing. But, this violent attack goes so much further than that.” He let the words sink in. Mr Richardson was confused by the ensuing silence, but Mr Stringer thought he knew where this was going.
“A birching then, headmaster?” he asked.
“Quite possibly. If it is to be corporal punishment, then it must be the birch.”
Mr Richardson’s mouth gaped open a little. He wasn’t sure what to say. The birch? Such an implement had never been used at St Francis, at least not to his knowledge. Was it even permitted?
The headmaster was in his stride. “It just so happens, that I already have a birch rod prepared that would be suitable for the purpose. Jenkins, one of our fifth-formers is due a birching after chapel tomorrow.”
He read Mr Richardson’s blank expression. “For bullying. He is to be birched for bullying. If you consent, we can use the birch on your boy and have another one made up for Jenkins.”
“Headmaster, I am really not sure,” Mr Richardson began, but his sentence trailed off.
The headmaster could be stern when the occasion demanded. “It is your decision to make. But, I must say, I do not think a caning sufficient punishment. If we decide not to birch the boy, I would expect the police to be informed and they can take up the case. Alderson is in the hospital, he would expect us to give your boy the harshest-possible punishment. So, too would his parents.”
The police? God no. Think of the bad publicity. Mr Richardson knew the headmaster would blame him for it. Dr Henderson-Smith already had his doubts about the sports master’s ability to keep order when he took teams away from the school.
The headmaster’s mind was already made up. “We can do it now, without delay. We can go to the gymnasium. I am sure any one of Alderson’s team mates would oblige in holding your boy down over the vaulting horse.”
Mr Richardson blanched. Would he be expected to deliver the birching? He was not experience in administering corporal punishment. The most he ever gave was a whack or two on the seat of a boy’s shorts, touching toes.
The headmaster seemed to read the man’s mind. “If you wish, Sir, I would be willing to wield the birch rod on your behalf.”
Mr Richardson meekly nodded his assent. And, in those few moments, Christopher’s fate was sealed.
Christopher took the news of his impending birching impassively. He had expected a beating; this was school after all and that’s what they did to you at school. A birching, however, would be a new experience.
Mr Richardson felt obliged to give the boy a lecture on his behaviour and how violence was not the answer. The irony that Christopher was to be birched was lost on him.
Minutes later, Christopher and his sports master were into the gymnasium. Mr Richardson was surprised and a little angry to see the entire St Anthony’s School football team lined against one wall. He had not agreed to a public birching, but it was too late to argue now. At least Christopher would be spared the humiliation of having his own team mates witness his flogging.
The boys who had been standing easily straightened up in readiness for the evening’s entertainment. How absurd they looked, Mr Richardson thought, in their blue and yellow striped blazers and grey short trousers and knee socks. Fully grown men forced to dress like little boys.
A vaulting horse had been placed in the centre of the floor and nearby, soaking in an enamel bucket, was a birch rod.
Mr Richardson had never seen a birch before, and, he supposed neither had Christopher. This one was a cluster of seven or eight leafless branches three feet long, tightly bound near the base with sticking plaster.
“Come boy, stand here,” the headmaster pointed to a spot in front of the horse. Christopher affected no emotion as he complied with the order, inwardly he was in turmoil. The birch looked fearsome. He was used to the cane, he had been thrashed many times before: St Francis was that kind of school. It hurt like hell, but he knew he could stand the pain of six-of-the-best on the trousers. But, today he was going to get eight sticks across the backside with only his thin football shorts between his flesh and the rods.
“When I instruct you,” the headmaster intoned, “You will lower your shorts and bend over the horse.” Mr Richardson saw Christopher blanch: on the bare. Bare arsed: and in front of all these people.
The headmaster continued, “You will hold on to the handles of the horse and you will remain in position. You will take your beating like a man.”
The headmaster droned on for a while, but Christopher was deaf. All he had heard was “lower your shorts” and after that it was a blank. All the headmaster’s threats of the consequences of moving or screaming were lost on him.
By now Mr Richardson was having grave doubts. Was there still time to stop this? A public bare-bottomed birching was unheard of at St Francis. Would his own headmaster support him when he learned what happened here this evening?
“Take down your shorts and bend over,” the headmaster ordered as he himself lent forward to retrieve the bundle of birch twigs from the bucket.
Defiantly, Mr Richardson thought, Christopher placed his thumbs in the waistband of his football shorts and with the merest flick of the wrist sent them down to his knees. The shorts fell to his feet as he moved towards the horse so he stepped out of them. Now, naked from the waist down, the eighteen-year-old hooligan leaned forward and placing his stomach on the leather top, bent over the horse, offering up his bared buttocks to the headmaster and his birch rods.
He clutched at the pieces of rope that served as carrying handles and wrapped them around his wrists, in effect tying himself down in readiness for the thrashing.
The watching schoolboys were impassive, save for one, who Mr Richardson observed had a slight smile playing around his lips. Another folded his hands in front of his crotch in an attempt to hide the growing erection inside his tight grey shorts.
The headmaster was in no hurry. He swished the birch rods through space spraying droplets of water across the dusty floor of the gymnasium. Christopher stared down at the wooden floorboards, intently studying the many scratch marks: anything to distract him from his present predicament.
Mr Richardson stared too: at Christopher’s smooth hairless bottom; soon to be pounded into raw meat.
The headmaster was ready and without ceremony, he drew his arm back and swished the birch across the proffered buttocks. The merest gasp, escaped from the boy’s clenched lips. A second stroke quickly followed, met with an audible, “ouch” from Christopher.
It hurt, it hurt a great deal, but it was a different pain to the cane Christopher was used to. The rattan would slice into the bum, cutting a single welt with each rise and fall, creating intense agony where the rod landed. The birch was different; his bottom was on fire, but it felt as if a white-hot egg-whisk had been pressed into his flesh.
The headmaster paused to admire his handiwork. The hairless buttocks were scared with dozens of thin white lines, narrow welts were rising where the birch twigs connected with the boy’s fleshy globes. As yet, no bruises had formed, and there was no sign of blood.
The birch swished again; Christopher screwed his eyes tight and stifled the yell, he so desperately wanted to make. The eyes of the schoolboy footballers seared into his neck, feeling almost as hot as his burning backside. He would not let himself down: he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing him in pain.
Swish! Swish! The birch rose and fell: sweat poured from the boy’s back, soaking through his football shirt. Christopher’s gasps were louder, but he was still in control. Swish! the hardest cut yet and the boy’s response was to beat his legs up and down against the wooden horse. Tears were forming behind his eyes.
Nobody in the gymnasium, Mr Richardson included, doubted that Christopher deserved all he was getting. But, many of the boys were dissatisfied with the punishment: they wanted blood, literally.
Perhaps the headmaster could read the thoughts of his pupils: he lashed down two more strokes with full force. That did it: the skin opened and blood seeped through. Christopher’s yelp echoing around the gymnasium was greeted with smiles of satisfaction from many of the boys.
“Right boy, stand up,” It was over: Christopher had survived. Slowly, he relaxed his grip on the rope handles and raised himself from the horse. Instinctively, his hands shot to his buttocks to gently rub against the dozens of raised stripes that decorated them.
Unsteadily, he retrieved his football shorts and gingerly stepped into them, all the time avoiding looking at the headmaster or the schoolboys who lined the walls. How he hated them; all of them. Given a chance he would gladly smack each and every one of their smug mouths.
“Take him away,” the headmaster’s order was directed at Mr Richardson. Christopher violently shrugged off the sports master’s offer of his arm, determined to leave the scene of his humiliation under his own stream.
They returned to an empty changing room; his team mates too embarrassed to await his return. The warm water from the shower washed away the blood but did little to relive the intense throbbing in Christopher’s backside. Mr Richardson had enough sensitivity to leave the boy to his own devices.
Fifteen minutes later the motor coach left to return the boys to their own school; a journey made in total silence.
Other stories from St Francis Grammar School you might like.
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second