George Harkness hurried towards the bus-stop, late for work. A fascinating discussion about the failing economy in Venezuela on The Today programme had delayed his departure from home. If he hadn’t been late he would never have seen the young man.
He saw him as he turned out of The Avenue. He was equally in a hurry. George Harkness sucked in breath. There could be no mistaking it. The dark (almost , but not quite) black hair cut close to the scalp. The long thin drawn face, covered in acne. The gangly gait the young man had as he weaved his way through the busy pavement, his painfully thin body dodging mothers with strollers.
It was Will Rigley.
Will Rigley, as George Harkness lived and breathed. Unmistakable.
Except that this man was about twenty years old and Will Rigley, like George Harkness himself, was thirty-eight.
George Harkness watched the man disappear into the distance. It was Will Rigley. An exact likeness. How could this be? George Harkness chewed his bottom lip, his heart suddenly racing. He hadn’t seen Will Rigley in twenty years, was it possible that this man was his son?
As George Harkness waited patiently for his bus to arrive, he was transported back in time. It was 1997, Will Ridley and George Harkness stood uneasily in the headmaster’s study. Literally on the carpet.
St. Francis Independent Grammar School was fighting the tide of progress. Dr. Cuthbertson loomed over the boys, his grim, lined, grey face, a little flushed. Between his hands he flexed a stout but supple rattan cane. George Harkness watched intently as the ageing headmaster swished it through empty air. It made a terrific swooshing noise as it went.
Corporal punishment had been abolished in state schools a decade earlier and most private schools had voluntarily given it up. Not so St. FIGS. It was a traditional school; traditional curriculum, traditional school uniform and traditional discipline. St. FIGS was trapped in aspic, somewhere just after 1945. George Harkness and Will Rigley stood to attention in the headmaster’s oak-panelled study, weak light streaming through mullioned windows. All three buttons on their green-and-gold blazers were fastened. Striped ties were tightly knotted. School caps were perfectly positioned on their heads. They were the perfect embodiment of the post-war schoolboy. First formers at the school still wore traditional grey short trousers and knee socks.
Dr. Cuthbertson wore a gown over his tweed suit, a mortarboard cap on his head. He glowered at the two sixth-formers before him.
George Harkness shivered at the bus stop, uncertain if it was caused by the nippy autumnal air or the memory of the visit to the headmaster’s study. George Harkness and Will Ridley were eighteen years old. Legal adults. Old enough to vote. Old enough to join the military and kill people. Old enough to have sex – even with one another. The exams started in three weeks’ time and then they would be out of that place.
Dr. Cuthbertson cared about none of this. They were pupils of his school. They had broken the rules and should be (and would be) punished. He swished the cane once more. “Take off your caps and blazers and put them on my desk,” he intoned. Will Rigley, anxious to get on with proceedings, quickly unbuttoned his jacket and slipped it from his shoulders. He was no stranger to this. It would be Six, he knew that. It would hurt like blazes, he knew that too, but the pain would quickly dissolve into a throbbing before turning to a dull ache. He would live.
George Harkness knew none of this. Unlikely though it might sound in a school like St. FIGS he had never been beaten. He was relatively new to the school, having joined the sixth form when his father moved to Brocklehurst to take up a directorship at the borough council. Caned for the first time, aged eighteen. What the hell would they say at his former school if they ever found out?
George Harkness watched as Will Rigley put his blazer on the headmaster’s desk and then carefully placed his cap on top of it. He returned to his original spot on the carpet, clasped his hands behind his back and stared intently at the floor. He seemed very calm. Unlike, George Harkness. George Harkness couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. They would not at first obey his instruction to unbutton his coat.
“Come along boy, we haven’t all day,” Dr. Cuthbertson growled and menacingly flexed the stout curve-handled cane between his hands.
Sweat started to soak the back of his shirt as George Harkness at last slipped the blazer from his shoulders and with trembling hands he placed it next to that of Will Rigley. He too resumed his position on the carpet in time to see the headmaster stride across the study towards a low-backed armchair. He tucked his cane under his arm and in one smooth movement swivelled the chair so that its back now faced into the room. He stood by its side and slipped the cane into his hand. He thwacked it against the padded apex of the chair and barked, “Rigley, you first. Step forward.”
George Harkness held his breath. His heart pounded and his shirt was by now soaked in sweat although it was cold in the study. He watched intently as Will Rigley took three paces forward. That was enough to leave him standing behind the chair.
“Bend over.” It was a curt command. The headmaster was in charge. He gave orders and others obeyed. That went for the schoolmasters as well as the pupils. Not, of course, that he ordered his masters to bend over for a swishing. Well, there had been that one very junior English master, but Dr. Cuthbertson was certain the wretch would not have shared the details of his ordeal with others.
George Harkness had a perfect view as Will Rigley drew a deep breath, rubbed the palms of his hands together and went over the back of the chair. It seemed to George Harkness like Will Rigley had dived into a pool of iced water. Will Rigley gripped the soft cushion of the chair. The back of the armchair was low and there was a gap of several inches between it and Will Rigley’s stomach.
“Head low, bottom high, feet further apart.” The eighteen-year-old obeyed each command. He was now ready to receive his thrashing.
George Harkness had never had cause to think about it before, but now watching Will Rigley present himself he realised how impossibly thin he was; almost unhealthily so. Will Rigley had legs like pipe cleaners and his bottom was but two pimples, his bum looked awfully small against the headmaster’s stout whippy cane.
George Harkness watched intently as Dr. Cuthbertson sawed the cane across the centre of Will Rigley’s bottom. He took careful aim, then lifted the cane away from the seat of the pale grey trousers, before whipping it back with terrific force. A tremendous crack as cane connected with backside echoed around the study. Air hissed through Will Rigley’s clenched teeth. His buttocks swayed under the sting, but he quickly settled himself for stroke number two. George Harkness watched in awe as a white line appeared across the seat of Will Rigley’s trousers. He imagined a thick red welt must be throbbing across Will Rigley’s buttocks.
Dr. Cuthbertson resumed his sawing, a little lower this time. He took his time, finding a spot on the under cheek, close to where the buttocks meet the thighs. Then he let fly. Will Rigley did the hissing and the buttock swaying again. This time he added a little knee bending. But, as before, he quickly settled, inviting the headmaster to deliver the third cut.
George Harkness’s temples throbbed. His head ached. Saliva drained from his mouth. He gave a throaty cough. The third stroke was aimed higher, near the crest of the mounds. Will Rigley now had three parallel welts, perfectly delivered. The pain was intense. Will Rigley felt his eyes welling and screwed them tight. He wouldn’t give the old goat the satisfaction of tears.
The headmaster paused, took two steps back and then slowly paced the study. George Harkness stood fascinated. The headmaster was admiring his handiwork from every conceivable angle. He took particular care to study Will Rigley’s face and neck, which were as red as his backside undoubtedly was. George Harkness saw Dr. Cuthbertson’s tongue dart through his pursed mouth before slowly licking first his lower lip and then the upper, all the time his gaze was on Will Ripley’s tight buttocks.
It seemed like an eternity to George Harkness (and also probably to Will Rigley) before the headmaster once more took up position behind and slightly to the left of the prostrate sixth-former. Will Rigley tensed as he felt the cane tap-tap-tap against his thigh. Whack! Total agony. Will Rigley fought to suppress the yell he desperately wanted to make. The back of the thighs was the most sensitive part of the body on offer to the headmaster. Many schoolmasters would agree it was bad form to beat a boy there. A caning should only be on the buttocks; that’s what God had made them for.
George Harkness screwed his eyes tight, he could not bear to watch further. What he failed to see was the headmaster alter his stance slightly. Now, he sawed the cane from the lower left buttock to the higher right. He used every ounce of his considerable strength to lash a diagonal cut across Will Rigley’s bum. He howled. Will Rigley didn’t want to but he had no choice. It was the most natural reaction his body could make to the utter agony he felt. The cane had flogged across the previous cuts reigniting the pain in them all. Blood gently oozed at the points the cuts intersected.
Dr. Cuthbertson moved position once more. This time the cane rested from the lower right to the upper left cheek. Whoosh! When Will Rigley later inspected his bare bum in the boys’ bogs he would find a perfect “X”. For now, he clutched the soft cushion of the armchair as if his life depended on it. His hips wriggled, his buttocks swayed and his left leg entwined the right. He gulped in draughts of air like a goldfish out of water. He wanted to leap to his feet and rub away at the intense burn that engulfed him. His bum had been ripped to shreds. He knew he must not do this. It would only encourage Dr. Cuthbertson to award him extra strokes.
The headmaster resumed his stroll around the study. Will Rigley’s bottom was now still. It jutted out once more at a perfect angle to receive the headmaster’s administrations. Dr. Cuthbertson tucked the cane under his arm, approached the teenager and gently rubbed the palm of his right hand across the contours of Will Rigley’s buttocks, making circular motions as he caressed every square inch.
“You may rise. Harkness take his place.”
George Harkness felt a jolt in his back. A man in the queue behind him was pushing forward. The bus had arrived. George Harkness reached into his pocket for his pass and made to board the bus. It was full and he had to strap-hang the whole journey. He had not thought of that incident in twenty years. His first and only caning. He had not taken it well. Tears flowed at the first cut and by number three he was howling like a banshee. It embarrassed him greatly. It took more than a week for the marks to completely disappear.
He left the school a few weeks later and went away to university. Will Rigley went away too and George Harkness never heard of him again. Corporal punishment was eventually outlawed (even at St. FIGS). George Harkness quickly forgot about the school and Dr. Cuthbertson until one day in 2005 his mother sent him a cutting from the Brocklehurst Bugle. Dr. Cuthbertson had committed suicide one day after police raided his house and found a dozen or so commercial video tapes, some depicting scenes of “headmasters” spanking “sixth-formers”.
Picture credit: The Magnet
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second