In February 2006 Mr R. A. F. Brightlington-Pugh, a former housemaster at the Ridgeway private boarding school in the west of England, passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of ninety-seven. Some years later, his great-great-great-great nephew found a leather-bound travelling chest containing diaries he had written during the 1930s and 1940s. This present story Called in for a Caning was inspired by the diary entry for 14th July 1939.
One supposes that Wilkins thought it was a spiffing good idea at the time. It must have seemed like a jolly good jape. He must have expected the other fellows in the sixth-form to think of him as a hero. I expect he changed his mind after I called him in for a caning.
Can there ever have been another schoolboy in all the land in all of history who visited his housemaster’s study on the very last evening of his school career for a farewell six of the best? That was Wilkins. Tomorrow he and his fellow senior boys will for the last time take the up train away from Ridgeway never to return. Their days as schoolboys ended forever.
Wilkins is a darned fool and he deserved everything he received.
As far as I can tell it started three days ago when Wilkins, who considers himself both an artist and a clown, chose to combine both attributes. He drew a caricature of a schoolmaster resplendent in academic cap and gown that had a very passable likeness to myself. The figure was brandishing a crook-handled cane with (I must relate) a rather demented expression on his face. If that had been the be all and end all of the matter I might have let it rest. I am not a man lacking humour. I could have passed the drawing off as a piece of end of term ragging. One is allowed to let one’s hair down (as I believe the current vulgarism has it) just before the hols.
Alas, there was more to the drawing than simply an over-excited schoolmaster. For, included in the picture was another figure. This one – a boy, clearly a sixth-former, and I believe intended to be a likeness of Dewhurst one of the top scholars in his set – was shown bending across the back of a rather worn armchair. It was clearly intended to represent a scene in my study. There can hardly be a boy in my House who has not had close contact with that particular piece of furniture at some time. Indeed, one or two of the senior boys have more than a passing acquaintance with that chair.
One might have left it there. Visits to the housemaster’s study for a beating are part of a schoolboy’s life. I know such experiences stay with many ‘old boys’ long after they have departed school and made their way in the world. Indeed, on Founder’s Day when many of them return to Ridgeway I have on occasion been approached with the request to administer to them six-of-the-best for old time’s sake.
But I digress. It is true that Wilkins’s caricature showed myself beating a boy. But that alone was not the reason why I summoned the boy to my study. His depiction went a little further. For in Wilkin’s imagination Dewhurst was bent across the chair his trousers at his ankles and underwear at the knees and I was flogging his bared buttocks with my cane. The result of my endeavour was clearly visible across the cheeks of the submissive boy.
And the expression on my face was not meant to be ambiguous: I was enjoying myself thoroughly.
I have no idea if Wilkins expected to get away with this outrage. I understand the drawing circulated freely among the sixth-form boys and I have no doubt to other forms beyond. It would be only a matter of time before the identity of the artist became widely known. It is possible that Wilkins intended to be found out; why would such a talented artist hide his light under a bushel? There is no glory in anonymity.
It was my junior colleague Mr Mainwaring who drew my attention to the outrage. He had intercepted the caricature’s circulation among the cricket First XI. It was then but a matter of time before the full story emerged. It was entirely correct of Mainwaring to report the matter to myself, but did I detect a certain curling of his lip as he handed it to me? I have seen that look of insolence with the boys many times. Is Mainwaring himself in need of a trip across my armchair?
Wilkins was the culprit. He knew that I knew, but I resolved to keep my powder dry. I would not immediately call him in for a caning. Let him wait; he could stew a while. He might even start to believe that no retribution was coming. Poor fool.
I am not generally a vindictive man. Generally when a boy is discovered misbehaving I deal with the matter promptly. “Bend over that chair. Head low, bottom high, feet apart.” Then swipe, swipe, swipe – six stingers across the stretched backside. Then, “Stand up boy. Now get out.” It is over in a trice. Crime committed; punishment accepted and we both get on with our lives.
Not so with Wilkins. There were still two days to go before his final night at Ridgeway. I would bide my time. At last as the boys were changing into pyjamas minutes before lights out, I sent an emissary to the senior boys’ dorm. “Wilkins attend Mr Brightlington-Pugh’s study.” Naturally, I was not present when the message was delivered, but I expect it was received with dismay. So, it was not to be, Wilkins had not been excused. “Hard luck, Wilkey,” his fellows would have commiserated with him, while quietly relishing that one of their own was about to receive a severe bowing. Boys can be cruel creatures.
“Attend at once,” the message was clear, “In your pyjamas.”
It was an early summer evening and most of the boys’ clothes were already packed away in trunks ahead of tomorrow’s journeys home. Wilkin had no dressing gown so appeared at my door dressed only in his regulation grey-and-white-striped pyjamas and house shoes. His rat-a-tat knock was confident, defiant even. He knew why he had been called in, there was no doubt in his mind that this was not a social visit. I had not asked him to drop by so that I could bid him farewell and offer my felicitations for a successful future.
“Enter!” I growled. The door sprung open and Wilkins appeared. He is a tall athletically built eighteen-year-old boy, who stands an inch or so taller than myself. Like his fellows, his hair is cut very short. His face is a little scarred by spots and there are signs around his upper lip that he might soon need to start shaving. Despite these outward appearances that he is a man he is decidedly nothing of the thing. He is a boy. Legally he becomes a man when he attains twenty-one and even then I have my doubts that many boys are truly ready for manhood even at that age.
Here at Ridgewood we insist that all pupils wear smart short trousers as part of their school uniform until they attain the age of sixteen and enter the sixth-form. Personally, I should be very content if they continued to wear short trousers until the day they left school in their nineteenth year. A Ridgeway boy is instantly recognisable in the locale. In additional to the dark-grey short trousers that reach to an inch above the knee, he wears a bright red woollen blazer with white edging; a red-and-white-hooped cap and grey knee socks with red tops.
I beckoned Wilkins into the study. I waved the offending caricature at him, rather as Mr Chamberlain did with his famous piece of paper declaring peace in our time. I had no message of peace for Wilkins; far from it. I accused him of being its architect and he immediately confessed his crime. I will say this for a Ridgeway boy, he is an honourable chap. It is undoubtedly true that he will try to break each and every rule we set for him and many times they escape undetected. However, if they are caught, they make no complaint and accept their punishment.
I had rehearsed a little something to express my displeasure with the boy’s insolence. Disrespect; Impudence; Impertinence; were some of the words I threw at him. I acknowledge I had consulted a thesaurus earlier in the day. I make my own confession now; I have when occasion dictates a little of the ham actor in me.
Wilkins took it all on the chin. He stood on the worn rug feet slightly apart, hands behind his back, his head a little bowed and brow furrowed. His temples shone with perspiration. I jawed him for a while and then the case for the prosecution completed, I allowed him to speak in defence. He had nothing to say in mitigation and in a rather half-hearted way, he said he was sorry.
“Bah!” I ejaculated. “Sorry! Yes, Wilkins. Sorry! You soon shall be.” I hauled myself from my chair and conscious that the boy’s eyes were following me nervously I ambled across my study towards a hat stand in the corner. I always have two crook-handled canes dangling from it, so that I am constantly ready for action as it were. Earlier, I had hung my special Malacca cane there. This cane although no longer or thicker than my others is a rod of great density. It will pack a punch like no other. To be beaten with this is an awesome experience, even for the most battle-hardened senior boy such as Wilkins.
I reached up and took down the Malacca. I tuned to face Wilkins, his hazel eyes sparkled, his face paled. I flexed the cane between my hands thereby demonstrating its extreme flexibility. Then I swished it through empty air. It made a terrific whoosh! as it flew. This little pantomime served no practical purpose, I was already acutely aware of the rod’s properties. As I say, I do have a bit of the ham actor about me.
I swished the cane once more and pointed it at one of the two armchairs in my study. This one was the older of the two, the upholstery was worn across the back and so was the cushion; generations of schoolboys had leaned over that chair and gripped the seat for all they were worth. Now it was the turn of Wilkins to uphold that tradition.
The eighteen-year-old was no stranger to my study, nor my rituals. Without further instruction, he took the four paces necessary to reach the chair, I watched him take a deep breath, then he rubbed the palms of his hands together before leaning forward. He placed his head low and his bottom high then he spread his feet thereby offering his pyjama-covered backside at a perfect angle to receive the attention of my cane. I had to admire his fortitude. He was ready to accept just punishment. I took a moment to admire the tableau. Wilkins is a star of both our rugby and cricket teams, he is quite the athlete. His body is firm and his limbs are loose. In this position, his firm buttocks stretched against the cotton pyjama bottoms seemingly lifting and separating each cheek. The muscles in his thighs emphasised the roundness of his bottom. He stared down at the seat cushion, breathing evenly, waiting patiently for me to do my duty.
I fingered the cane and once more flexed it into a bow. I was ready to go. I took up a position about three feet to his left (a cane’s length) and gently tapped the Malacca across the very centre of his bottom, a half inch or so below the highest point of his mounds. I tapped some more, perfecting my aim. I was about to raise the cane to then bring it swiping down with maximum force when I stopped myself short. An idea had taken me.
“Stand up Wilkins!” I could see the look of astonishment in the boy’s still sparkling eyes. He pulled himself to his feet, his puzzlement evident on all his features. I swiped the cane through the air. I confess that my heart was thumping and my throat was more than a little dry. I croaked at Wilkins, “I think the seriousness of your offence is such that an exemplary punishment is called for.” I saw the boy’s face fall. I do believe he was one step ahead of me and had guessed my intention.
“Lower your pyjama bottoms Wilkins and step out of them.” I swear the sound of his gulp could be heard in the quadrangle outside of my study. His mind raced. I believe I could read some of what he was thinking. A bare-bottomed thrashing! On his final evening at school. For a second he contemplated a refusal. If he had said No! what would I have then done? He is undoubtedly bigger and stronger than I. He would win a brawl with ease. I would be left humiliated; my only recourse would be to ask the headmaster to expel him. What a humiliation that would be (for me)! Wilkins is due to leave Ridgeway tomorrow, he has already taken his examinations, expulsion would have no consequences for him.
I swiped the cane down hard across the apex of the chair. “Pyjama bottoms down. Step out of them. Bend over!” I made the command with more confidence that I actually felt. Wilkins bit down into his bottom lip, then not looking at me, he fumbled with the drawstring of his pyjamas. It took longer than one might expect for him to complete the task. The pyjamas tumbled to his feet and without hesitation he stepped out of them. He turned and dived across the back of the chair with alacrity. He wriggled into position, head low, bottom high, feet apart. I took three deep breathes. I was back in control.
Writing this diary less than an hour later I can reflect almost soberly (well, I have had a glass of whisky) that all is well with the world order. Wilkins, a schoolboy, understands his place. That is to obey his superiors (his “betters” as the lower classes like to say) without question.
Wilkins presented his bared bottom to me for punishment. Slowly and methodically I placed six cuts across the quivering meat. I started in the very centre of his cheeks across the highest peaks, then I struck slightly below and then slightly above that first marker. By the time I was finished he had six deep stripes running in parallel across his posterior in a group about two inches wide. If I may say so myself it was an expertly administered thrashing. Of course, Wilkins played his part; his stoicism and ability to stay in position, bottom raised even under such terrible fire, made my task that much easier.
With the six-of-the-best duly delivered, I ordered him to stand, he quickly retrieved his pyjama bottoms, put them on and tied himself up. I believe I detected a hint of admiration behind his by now very watery hazel eyes. I offered him my hand to shake. I think he deserved that. He had taken his beating like a man. I rather think I shall miss Wilkins.
I will keep his caricature with my other treasured memories of Ridgeway.
Picture credit: CP Services London
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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