George Nettles grasped the fading photograph with trembling hands. He could barely hold anything steady these days. The warders gave him his tea in a plastic cup. With a lid screwed on. He had to sip it through a hole cut in the top. He called them the “warders”, but they preferred to be called “care assistants”. Bugger that, he thought. Their main job was to stop the residents doing anything.
His granddaughter had brought him the photograph. A young man – a boy really – eighteen years old. In a corn field. On a harvester. In shorts and an open shirt. Waving. Who at? George couldn’t remember. It was so long ago – 1949. He peered intently at the smiling boy. Had he really been so carefree? Nearly seventy years ago.
Carefree? Was that really the right word? He remembered it as if it were yesterday, which was strange because he couldn’t truly recall what he did yesterday. He would struggle to remember what he had eaten for breakfast that morning.
1949: Tomkinson’s Farm. East Anglia. Tomkinson, George’s face cracked into a broad smile. He hadn’t thought about the brute in six decades or more. It was the Church that had sent him to the farm. The Second World War was over, but the peace had still to be won. That’s how people talked in those days. Everyone had to chip in. Do their bit; play a part. Volunteers descended on the farms to bring in the harvest.
He went with a chap called Roger. Damn it, George screwed his eyes tightly. What was the fellow’s second name? No, it would come to him later. Small for his age. Jet black curly hair. Lots of spots. My did they get into a lot of trouble. Townies in the country. Away from parental control for the first time in their lives. George winced. It was as if Tomkinson’s thick, heavy belt had once more slashed across his naked buttocks.
The kids today wouldn’t believe you if you tried to tell them. Things were so different then. Eighteen was nothing. You didn’t become an adult until you were twenty-one. They all knew their place. The Church was really big, the priest was God himself.
The trouble started over booze. George’s eyes glistened at the memory. No different to today’s kids really. They wanted to drink alcohol, to be grown up. There wasn’t the money around and even if there were there were the pubs would never serve under-age kids. So they made their own. Cider. There were plenty of apples around. It didn’t take much.
George shuffled in his chair, his legs had been giving him pain for some days. He could hardly walk. Cider. Moonshine more like. They made it in buckets. My, he smiled at the memory, a group of the lads from all the farms around got rip-roaring drunk. He was sick as a dog. He’d never had a hangover like it since; and he had been in some gin joints when he was in the Army.
Of course, Tomkinson found out. Took it as a personal affront. As if George and Roger had done it to spite him. George didn’t have to close his eyes to conjure up the farmhouse kitchen. A large, draughty room, dominated by a rickety wooden table and a Welsh dresser for cups and saucers. And lots of heavy straight-backed wooden chairs.
George sighed, pulled himself from his own chair. He really ought to call a warder for help. Damn them, he thought. He didn’t need help every time he wanted to sit on his bed. Summoning strength from somewhere, he hauled himself to his feet. The bed was only three steps away. Come on George, he berated himself, you can do it. His knees ached like mad. His balance was shot to pieces. C’mon, lad! One foot dragged across the harsh industrial-strength carpet. Then another. Aaaah! George toppled forward, landing with a thump on his thin mattress.
“See,” he said to nobody in particular, “Who needs help?” He rolled on his back and wheezing gazed up at the ceiling. The room span. He closed his eyes.
“You’re a disgrace, the pair of you,” it was Mr. Tomkinson speaking. George and Roger stood, heads bowed, hands behind their backs, knees bent slightly, feet shuffling. “What do you think St. Francis will say when I tell them?” He meant the church in Stepney that had sent them to work in the fields. “And your dads. I know what they’d say,” he growled and sneered ominously, “and what they’d do.”
Mr. Tomkinson was a large, strong man with a ruddy complexion, as befitting a farmer who worked the fields from dawn to dusk. He was god-fearing and observed the world around him in black and white terms. Illegal drinking, hangovers that kept them from working in the fields. The harvest delayed. Flour mills waiting for supplies. Bread not baked. Families going hungry. All because two stupid boys guzzled themselves sick on homemade cider.
Too much harm had been caused, Mr. Tomkinson told himself, for the boys to remain unpunished.
“You need a leathering …” he left the sentence unfinished. George glanced across at Roger, but the boy’s intense stare never left the floor. Mr. Tomkinson already was unbuckling his belt. He whisked it through the loops of his trousers. George watched intently as the farmer folded it once, then twice so it was about eighteen inches long.
“And, that’s just what I’m going to give you,” Mr. Tomkinson said, completing his sentence.
He was a man of few words. He grabbed hold of a chair and moved it away from underneath the wooden table. He swished his belt through the air and then addressing Roger, he growled, “Stand there, by the table.”
On his back on the bed nearly seventy years after the event, George had a perfect view of what happened next. As indeed he had in the farmhouse kitchen that autumnal morning. Roger opened and closed his mouth as if in protest, but no words came. Doubtless, he wanted to say the farmer had no right to belt him, only his father could do that. But what would be the point? Mr. Tomkinson was in charge, he had the weight of public opinion on his side. Given the chance, the priest would thrash him and so would his dad. Probably, both of them. Spanked twice for the same offence. If he had the intelligence to rationalise his situation, Roger would have submitted to the farmer’s will.
He did not have the wit of a barrack-room lawyer, so there was no argument from Roger. Instead, he took the three paces it needed to take up position by the table. George watched as his pal stood submissively, waiting for the inevitable next instruction. He was a smallish boy of eighteen. People were smaller in those days and he probably didn’t reach five-feet-six. Despite the work in the fields, he retained the stature of a scrawny townie. His short trousers hung loosely from his hips, kept up by an elasticated “snake” belt. His blue cotton shirt was untucked and three open buttons revealed his hairless but tanned chest.
Mr. Tomkinson grasped the belt in his right hand. It was wide and thick and trebled up as it was it promised to inflict a severe beating. “Shorts down. Pants too.” It was a clear order, not barked, but Mr. Tomkinson expected to be obeyed. And he was. But, Roger stumbled as he tried to find the clasp of his belt. Its snake’s head refused to allow itself to be released, but after several tries and a loud grunt from the farmer Roger had it free. His black short trousers needed no help to slip over his hips and slither down to his knees. Unbidden, Roger spread his legs a little and they continued their journey to the ground.
George had seen Roger without his trousers – and much less besides – many times and was not surprised to see his pal’s off-white underpants were shapeless and baggy – and also appeared to be several times too big for him. They quickly joined his short trousers at his feet.
“Bend over.” The order was hardly unexpected but still it took Roger’s breath away. He was expected to submit his bared bottom to the attention of Mr. Tomkinson, his employer, and a man he hardly knew. It would be difficult enough to do this for his father, a man who was very well acquainted with Roger’s bottom – clothed and bared.
When Roger finally leaned forward, resting his stomach on the worn pine table, George noticed just how thin his pal was. There wasn’t enough spare fat on his entire body to sizzle a sausage. Roger wriggled this way and that, unsure where to put his arms and hands. He tried stretching them ahead of himself to grip the far edge of the table, but it was too long and he too short for that to work. So he tried for the side edges so he was positioned rather as if for a crucifixion, but that was no good. Finally, he settled on folding his arms and resting his face in them. That way, he was ready to receive his lashing from Farmer Tomkinson.
George watched transfixed. He was no stranger to corporal punishment; which boy of his era was not, but he had never before witnessed a boy take a beating. What he saw was an eighteen-year-old presenting himself stoically; that is there were no histrionics, no pleadings for mercy, no complaints. Roger merely lay, his breathing a little shallow, for his master to do his business. His legs twitched when Mr. Tomkinson lay the belt gently across the middle of boy buttocks. He was taking his aim. He stood a little to Roger’s left – a belt length’s away – and when he had found his spot, he raised the leather to above shoulder height and twisting his body as he did so, he lashed down a stroke. A couple of sunset stripes immediately glowed across the tiny target area; Roger sucked in air and slowly released it through clenched teeth. That hurt. That hurt a lot.
As if in sympathy for his pal, George’s hands fumbled to his own buttocks and he patted them ruefully. Thwack! the sound of leather bouncing back from stretched flesh resounded around the large farm kitchen. Roger snorted through his nose and screwed his eyes. Even from his distance George could make out the clear welts forming across the teenager’s bum
And so it went on, leather rising and pounding into naked buttocks, again and again and again. Roger’s bum turned from white, to pink, and then through a strange amalgam of yellows and oranges to a deep crimson. Roger sucked on his wrists, gulped in air, shut his teeth and once in a while wriggled his hips and legs as the pain intensified. But not once did he utter a sound of distress. Perspiration drenched Mr. Tomkinson’s ruddy face, but he was strong as an ox, he could go on all night if he need arose. But it did not. The farmer believed in chastisement, he believed in the lash, he had no doubt he was performing God’s work. But enough is sufficient. At last he rested the belt on the wooden table.
“Get up. George, your turn.”
Roger leapt to his feet and not waiting to rub away at his scorched backside he pulled his underpants and short trousers up together. Now, it was George’s turn.
From his bed, George watches his younger self slip his short trousers down to his feet, then hitch his thumbs beneath the waistband of his underpants. In a trice his buttocks are bared. Having studied Roger, he knows precisely how to position himself across the farm kitchen table. He sees the farmer swish the belt, taking practice swipes, although of course he would never have been able to see this back in 1949. The belt rises …
The body on the bed stirs slightly. It shows no outward sign of the shock. Its heart clenches and stops. Later, a twenty-year-old care giver will wonder just for a moment who was the boy on the harvester?
Picture credit: Boy’s Own Paper
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second