Dr Henderson-Smith the headmaster was at his most self-important. Five hundred schoolboys sat in rapt attention.
The headmaster, dressed in a rather old-fashioned academic gown, berated his boys. He was a commanding figure, tall, grim, stiff as a ram-rod. His white moustache bristled and his knitted white brows frowned.
The headmaster had centre stage and the old ham actor was enjoying his moment. The topic of his sermon was snowballs; and the throwing thereof. The dangers of eyes poked out by shards of ice. Damp clothes and influenza.
He wrapped his academic gown around his body giving the appearance of a crow about to take flight. “I do not have to spell out the consequences to any boy found throwing snow.”
Undeniably he did not. St Francis Independent Grammar was a traditional school. It had traditional classes, traditional sports, traditional uniform and traditional discipline. An errant boy could expect a very sore backside indeed.
It was proving to be one of the worst winters on record. Brocklehurst had been carpeted with snow for most of December and January. It had stopped snowing for a while, but forecasters predicted more to come.
That evening George Baker, sixth-form pupil and prefect at St Francis, stared from his bedroom window. The snow was falling once more. He tucked a hot water bottle beneath his sheets and dived under the blankets. Shivering in bed, he went through a plan in his head. He had been thinking about it for months. Maybe, he thought, one day, he would put the plan into operation.
The next day Dr Henderson-Smith sat in his study. The school day was completed. The open fire roared, but there was still a chill in the air. He busied himself preparing a composition to inflict on his Upper VI Latin class. His concentration was disturbed by a dull thudding noise. He paused from his labours, uncertain what it was that he had heard.
Then, there it was again. Thud. Something had connected with the outside of the study window.
“What the Dickens?” the headmaster said aloud, even though he was alone in the room. When a third thud followed, he was certain he had solved the mystery.
A handful of snow was slithering down the outside of the window.
He rushed over and peered through the now-misty glass.
“What the …?” This time he failed to complete the sentence. Below his study window, in his clear view was a boy throwing snow. Dr Henderson-Smith watched dumbfounded as the boy crouched down, scooped snow into his hand, fashioned it into a ball, and then threw it, seemingly at random at passing pupils.
The boy was clearing disobeying the headmaster’s instruction. No snowballs. Dr Henderson-Smith stared with radioactive eyes. Then he threw open the window and roared, “Baker, my study. This instance!”
The boy dropped the snow he was fashioning for another missile and turned to face the noise.
“Yes, Sir,” he said meekly and moved to enter the building.
The headmaster closed the window and sat at his desk, dumbfounded. He had caught George Baker throwing snowballs in clear violation of the headmaster’s expressed instructions.
George Baker? Sixth-former and prefect. The boy was in the headmaster’s Latin class. He was among the brightest boys in the school and was destined to go up to one of the country’s top universities.
There was a timid knock on the heavy oak door of the study. Baker had arrived.
“Enter!” Dr Henderson-Smith bellowed. Slowly, the door inched open and a head appeared. It was a small head topped with short curly black hair. The face was flushed; possibly caused by freezing cold air; or possibly because its owner, one George Baker, knew he was in serious trouble. Very serious trouble indeed.
“Don’t dawdle boy!” Dr Henderson-Smith was incapable of speaking at a normal volume. “Close the door, you are letting the warmth escape.”
Baker edged his way into the room, closed the door behind him and halted, unsure what to do next.
He eyed the headmaster resplendent in his academic gown, seated behind a huge oak desk. The boy had never been in this room before. There had been no reason for him to visit. Particularly not for the purpose that had brought him today. Baker found the dense oak panelling intimidating. The room was gloomy even during bright sunny days, but now, in the bleak mid-winter, it felt like the inside of a cave.
“Stand there boy!” the headmaster pointed very deliberately to a point on a worn rug in front of his desk. Generations of schoolboys had shuffled their feet on this spot. It was the first phase of a ritual played out over possibly hundreds of years at St Francis. This was where every sorrowful boy stopped and stood, head bowed, to await his fate.
The second phase was the “jawing.” The headmaster berated the woeful boy for his misbehaviours. Dr Henderson-Smith had perfected his own style: pomposity. He aimed his steely eyes at Baker like a weapon.
“Were you not in att-end-ance at morn-ing ass-emb-er-ley yes-ter-day morn-er-ing?” the headmaster strung out every syllable for dramatic effect. This way, he believed, he struck terror into his boys.
Baker listened confused. When Dr Henderson-Smith spoke this way it could be difficult to follow what he was saying.
The eighteen-year-old sixth-former took a stab at a reply.
“Yes, Sir.” It was not a detailed response, but the boy hoped it would do in the circumstances.
“Pah!” It was an explosion. Air rushed through the headmaster’s lips. His snowy white moustache bristled; his eyebrows knotted. The outrage he felt was intense.
“And, yet!” Dr Henderson-Smith was barely in control. “And yet, you saw fit to disobey my clear instructions on the throwing of snowballs!” The headmaster was speaking more clearly now, but Baker was unsure if this was a rhetorical question. Was he supposed to answer?
He chose silence. He stared down at his feet and let his headmaster continue his denunciation.
“Never in my whole life as a headmaster,” he lied, “have I ever come across such wilful disobedience as this Baker. Never.”
Dr Henderson-Smith slapped the palm of his right hand on the desktop, startling young Baker who was intently studying the pattern on the rug.
“What do you have to say for yourself boy?”
Baker’s heart pounded. What could he say? He wished the headmaster would just get on with it.
“Well!” the headmaster screeched. He genuinely could not understand what Baker had been thinking.
“Sorry, Sir.” It was all he could think to say. He certainly couldn’t tell the truth.
“Pah!” It was another explosion of indignation. Sorry, the headmaster thought to himself. You soon will be.
“You leave me no choice, Baker.”
The boy raised his head. His grey-blue eyes shone as he watched the headmaster heave himself from his chair and pace the study. His destination was a corner cupboard. It was unlocked and within seconds the headmaster was rummaging round inside. His body blocked the teenager’s view, but he could hear a distinct rattling within.
Seconds later, Dr Henderson-Smith withdrew a curve-handled cane. Baker had seen many of these in the past; St Francis was that kind of school. But he had never before been on the receiving end of one. The headmaster looked attentively at the cane in his hands; as if seeing it for the first time. He murmured to himself and thoughtfully he flexed it between both hands. It was a little over three feet long and no thicker than a pencil.
Baker gawked from a distance. As school canes went it did not look especially vicious, he thought. He had seen longer and thicker ones. But, what this caning novice did not know was that in expert hands even a short thin cane could be made to deliver an excruciating sting. Dr Henderson-Smith was such an expert.
The headmaster turned to face the boy. He swished the cane through the air. If the swoosh! that it made was intended to intimidate the sixth-former it worked. For the first time that afternoon Baker wondered if disobedience had been such a good idea.
“Take you blazer off and hang it on the hook on the door.”
Baker wanted to comply with the order, but his fingers didn’t want to work. Was it the cold or his nerves, he wasn’t quite sure.
Eventually, the jacket was in place.
The headmaster swished the cane once more. “Stand in front of my desk.”
Baker had never been caned in his life, but he had heard enough tales from school friends to know that in a moment he would be bent across the desk, with his bum in the air to allow the headmaster to thwack six-of-the-best across the seat of his trousers. It would hurt like blazes. He expected that. That was after all the point of it all.
“Lower your trousers.”
Baker had not expected that and the pleading look in his eyes betrayed his feeling. He stood rooted.
“Lower your trousers boy!” the headmaster repeated, a little louder this time.
Still Baker could not move.
“If you do not submit yourself to corporal punishment, I shall contact your father and tell him you are suspended from school. Do you wish me to do that?” The headmaster spoke slowly and deliberately.
He hoped it would not come to that. What on Earth would Mr Baker make of the situation? His eighteen-year-old son in the headmaster’s study refusing to take a beating. His son who had never given a moment’s trouble before. He had never needed caning before; never been given detention; never been set lines. He had probably never been admonished for bad behaviour in his life.
“One last time Baker. Lower your trousers.”
Sweat from the boy’s palms transferred to the belt as with shaking hands he struggled to loosen it. He could feel blood racing through his body at great speed as he pulled the buttons of his trousers loose, exposing the white Y-front underpants beneath.
The mid-grey trousers slipped down to his knees. He waited for the next instruction. Dr Henderson-Smith had developed a cruel streak in his years as a headmaster. The youngster standing in front of him was terrified. Dear God, the boy would be thinking, please don’t make me take down my underpants. The headmaster waited a moment and then waited some more.
“Lift your pullover and shirt clear of your bottom and bend over the desk.” He tapped the cane gently across the hard oak desktop in case there was any doubt.
Even though blood coursed through his body, it drained from Baker’s face, making him look ghoulish.
The boy adjusted his clothing exposing a flat hairless stomach and stretched his arms out ahead of him, gripping the desk top with both hands and thrusting his bottom out.
“Not like that,” the headmaster was easily irritated when a boy did not present himself properly for a caning. “Right over. Flat on your stomach.”
Baker eased forward. It was a huge desk and it was a stretch for him to reach the far edge with his hands. Unsure what to do with his arms, he folded them and tried to bury his head.
“Put your hands on your head and keep them there,” the headmaster barked. “Do not move them and at no point try to protect yourself with your hands.”
Baker did as instructed. Hands on head worked. It was a surprisingly comfortable stance to take. Comfortable for now, but what happened next would be far from that.
Thinking about it later, Baker tried to imagine the scene. He was stretched across a huge oak desk; his trousers now at his ankles, revealing long, slim, slightly hairy legs. His shirt and pullover was pushed up and his midriff was bare. It was a cold room but he could feel the heat from the roaring open fire against his naked flesh. His white cotton underpants fitted snugly once the headmaster had tugged them tight against his buttocks.
His face was pressed down into the old oak desk. There was a faint aroma that he couldn’t identify; probably some kind of polish.
He waited, heart racing, teeth clenched, eyes tightly shut, while Mr Henderson Smith a powerful upright man and as strong as an ox adjusted his academic gown so he could get a better swing. Then Baker imagined, the headmaster preparing himself, flexing the cane.
He did not have to imagine his shudder of anticipation as the headmaster laid the cane across the centre of his buttocks and pressed it hard into the meat. He was getting his aim. The boy felt the cane move off his bum; then there was an almighty swish and it came crashing down, hitting his buttocks and sinking deep into the flesh.
Baker’s mouth opened and closed. “Hisssssssss.” It wasn’t a yell, it was almost silent. The sound of air being exhaled. The boy tightened his grip on his entwined fingers and pressed down on the top of his head.
Swipe number two was equally as hard and landed almost exactly on top of the first. That got Baker yelping. The pain shot from the centre of his bum and sped up and down his legs. He wriggled his hips and waggled his buttocks.
Two down. The pain was excruciating; so much more than Baker had expected. How could anyone take six strokes like this? Then, he panicked. Six? It was to be six wasn’t it? The headmaster hadn’t announced a tariff. Would it be more? Please God, no.
The third stroke interrupted his thoughts. It landed lower, across the crease. Each swipe had been laid on with vigour. Dr Henderson-Smith was giving it some beef. Each stroke had been an almighty swipe; he could have been beating a carpet. This one had the boy’s feet marching up and down on the spot. His bum felt swollen. He desperately wanted to jump up and rub away.
“Oh, no!” Baker thought it but did not say it aloud. Dr Henderson-Smith had taken hold of the elasticated waist of his underpants. “Please, no, don’t pull them down.”
He bit down into his bottom lip, stifling his desire to beg for mercy. But, he need not worry. The headmaster pulled the waistband of the Y-fronts away from the boy’s back to get a full view of his bare buttocks. He was inspecting the damage done so far.
What he saw were three deep red marks, across both cheeks, almost parallel to one another. A thick welt had formed where two of the strokes had landed nearly in the same place. If he struck that area again, it would surely bleed, he thought.
The headmaster was not a sadist. He believed in corporal punishment; not in torture. A caning should be well laid on, especially if the body on the receiving end was a senior boy, or a recidivist, a repeat offender. Intense pain should be inflicted and there should be marks that would stay for days, a reminder of the penalty for bad behaviour.
Dr Henderson-Smith did not wish to leave Baker’s buttocks bloodied, so for number four he took aim lower down, away from the danger area. It struck at the sensitive “sit spot,” where the cheeks met the thighs. That one had Baker hollering. Tears flowed. He head-butted the desk; he marched his feet up and down and twisted his hips and bottom; but none of it helped. The agony was intense and it was not going away any time soon.
Four strokes had been delivered in a carefully timed sequence. Sufficient time was allowed to elapse so the full force of a stroke could be felt before the next was sent crashing home. The final two were delivered in quick succession, and at intense speed. Whack-whack. The whippy rattan bounced off the tight cotton-covered buttocks. It sounded like two pistol shots echoing around the ancient study.
George Baker thought he might faint. His scorched bottom felt like the headmaster had forced him to sit in the open fire. When the headmaster delivered the final cut to the boy he rested the cane on the desktop and waited for the final throaty scream to recede. For what seemed an age neither the headmaster nor the thrashed boy spoke or moved.
The only noise in the room was the continued quiet sobbing of George Baker, still bent across the desk.
Dr Henderson-Smith brushed his hand across the boy’s shoulder. “You may get up now,” he said softly.
Unsteadily, Baker lifted himself off the desk. His backside felt twice its normal size. He rubbed gently and even through the cotton underpants he could feel at least two distinct deep weals. The surface of his bum felt hard, like leather.
Tears still trickled from his eyes, but he was in control of himself now. Gingerly, he pulled up his trousers and tucked in his shirt. He could not bear to look at the headmaster. He wanted to get out of the study without delay.
While Baker struggled into his blazer, Dr Henderson-Smith reached into the drawer of his desk, extracted the punishment book and entered the details.
“Sign,” he pushed the book and a ball-point pen across the desk. The headmaster wanted this to end swiftly too.
“You are dismissed.”
Dr Henderson-Smith stood at the study window perplexed and watched Baker walk through the quadrangle and out of the school gates.
Twenty minutes later at home in his cold bedroom George Baker inspected the damage. The pain had gone, but his bottom was tender to touch. It might be a bit uncomfortable sitting on a hard dining room chair at tea time.
So, he thought, that’s what it felt like to get the cane. It would have been a pity to have gone through his whole school career at St FIGS without knowing. He picked up the Football Monthly, eased himself down on the bed and flicked through its pages.
Other St Francis Grammar School stories you might like
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second