I stood feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind my back and watched morosely as the headmaster shuffled across his study. He paused at a hat stand. It contained no hats, nor coats. Instead a single curve-handled whippy rattan school cane dangled. He coughed slightly before stretching up his right arm to unhook it.
I took a deep breath. I knew how this scene was about to play out. He grasped the cane in his fist and turned to face me. He swiped the cane through the empty air; it made a terrific swooshing sound as it flew.
He scrunched up his face and peered across the room at me. In my mind’s eye I can still see him clearly, fifty-five years after the event.
He swished the cane once more and then craning his neck forward towards me he gripped the cane between his two hands. It was a standard pose, a cliché almost. He flexed the cane. It was more than three feet long and as thick as a pencil. Even at a distance I could see many notches along its length. In the right hands this would be a terrible weapon. And, the headmaster had those hands.
His penetrating stare never left me. His receding hairline reminded me of Dracula, but without the fangs. His pasty jowls and heavy bags under the eyes gave him the air of one who carried the troubles of the whole world on his shoulders. Perhaps, he felt he did. He flexed the cane thoughtfully. Then he spoke.
“This is for your own good,” he rasped. Later in my own adulthood I would recognise the cigarettes and whiskey in such a voice. He waved the cane in my direction in case I hadn’t understood the import of his words. I begged to differ, but kept my counsel and heard him out.
“You have been spoken to before,” he wobbled the cane some more. “You are lazy and do not work hard.”
He was wrong, I was not lazy I was bored; it wasn’t the same thing. I was eighteen; too old for school. I should have been somewhere else. I knew many men who remained schoolboys most of their lives, they never grappled with adulthood. I was not one of them.
“Unless you buckle down to your studies,” the headmaster intoned, “You will not pass your examinations.” He laid great stress on the word examinations, stringing it out as if it consisted of six syllables. I remained silent, I knew he didn’t want to hear what I had to say. “You will not get a university place and then where shall you be?”
University place! Nobody had asked if I wanted to go to university. Everyone, the masters at school, my parents, my brothers my pals, they all assumed I wanted to go to university. Looking back, I can’t say I can blame them. It was that kind of school, it existed to get boys to university. It had no other function. If a boy did not go “up” as we called it in those days, he was a failure. Irredeemable. Hopeless. Without worth.
“This is for your own good,” he said once more. Still I was unconvinced. Perhaps, it was for his good. I can see him now, his shoulders hunched, his sad grey eyes often with a distant, wistful look. Dandruff flaked the shoulders of his tatty academic gown. Buttons of his waistcoat strained against his paunch. His tweed trousers strained at his stomach. Today we might call his look “seedy.”
He swished that goddam cane once more. “You will thank me for this one day,” he said with no hint of irony. “This might be the saviour of you.”
Did he really believe what he said? Could he hear himself? Imagine it was today. A headmaster, a man probably well into his fifties; older possibly. Instructing an eighteen-year-old boy to prepare himself to bend over so that the headmaster might lash him across the backside with a cane. You could see the social workers, the law courts, the newspaper headlines.
But this is now; that was then. Nobody much thought it odd. I certainly didn’t. It was simply the way things were. Schoolmasters, doctors, priests, you name them, they could do what they liked. The deference to our betters was boundless.
The headmaster shuffled closer to me, I watched him conscious that my heart was racing faster than I should have liked. I wanted this over with. I was determined to make minimum fuss. To let him have his way.
“Hang up you blazer,” it was a curt command. I was annoyed that my fingers fumbled over such a simple task. At last I had it where moments before the cane had been hanging. “Lower your trousers.” It was a curt command, one the headmaster expected to be obeyed – without question.
It was not unexpected. Senior boys were always swished trousers down. I know what you’re thinking. Today, we would cry “pervert” or even worse. In those days it was to be expected. We never got it bare-arsed, like at some schools. There had been a court case around that time of a housemaster at an expensive, elite “public” school who had been up before the magistrate after he gave one of his charges a stiff six across the naked buttocks. He was cleared of all charges. “He must be acquitted,” the Beak had said, “Else we should have half the housemasters in England up before the bench.”
I was to be spared the ultimate indignity of showing the headmaster my manhood. Pants, I suppose, afforded a certain amount of modesty. I don’t suppose a caning with my Y-fronts at my ankles would have been any more painful.
I struggled with my belt, those darned fumbling fingers again. At last I had it loosened with the top button of my trousers. They were made of some heavy wool mixture (I think) which may have been why the headmaster made us remove them. Once I had undone the top two buttons of my fly, they slipped down my thighs and snagged at my knees. I spread my legs slightly and they slithered down and fell into a puddle at my feet.
“Bend over. Touch your toes,” again a bit of a cliché. I wonder how many schoolboys of my era heard those dreaded words uttered by his head or some other school master. “Head low, bottom high.” That last instruction seems to me superfluous. Surely, it is impossible for a chap to bend over and touch toes without the bottom being high. That, after all, is the object of the exercise.
I knew from painful experience that “toes” meant toes, and not knees or shins. I was quite an athlete in those days and my body was supple. I bent forward and with my knees straight, I stretched my fingers so they brushed the toecaps of my black lace-up shoes. In this position I had a perfect view of the worn rug beneath my feet. I suppose it had once contained a blue pattern; but by this time, after generations of schoolboys had shuffled their feet into position, it was a grimy grey.
It was only now with my legs bare that I felt how cool it was in the study. It would have been March or April and spring had not quite sprung. I shut my teeth firmly together and closed my eyes and waited. The floorboards in the study were as worn as the rug and they creaked loudly as the headmaster circled my body. Once he had examined my submissive body from every conceivable angle, he paused almost directly behind me. I heard him wheeze heavily and once again clear his throat. It sounded like he might be clearing phlegm from the back of his throat.
I shuddered, from the cold or nervousness I do not know, when the headmaster took hold of the tail of my white shirt. In those days shirts had proper tails and this one would have been covering my buttocks and the backs of my thighs. He gripped the cotton hard and dragged the material up my back and left it resting against my shoulders. I shuddered again when the headmaster took hold of the elasticated waist of my underpants. He did not (as I feared he would) drag them to my knees, thus exposing my bare bottom. Instead, he tugged hard so that my pants dug up into my crack and so that the white Y-fronts fitted snuggly like a second skin.
To test this was so, the headmaster circled the palm of his hand firmly around my right buttock cheek. Satisfied there were no creases there, he repeated the manoeuvre on the left. Finally, he landed the open palm of his hand across each cheek, as if to give me encouragement for my ordeal ahead.
The floorboard creaked again and now the headmaster had taken up his position a little to my left. The tip of his cane tapped against my stretched buttocks. He laid it across the centre of both cheeks and tapped some more. He was getting his aim. I closed my eyes tighter and took a deep breath and held it. The cane lifted away from my bum, there was an almighty swishing of air and a loud crack as rattan cane hit flesh. I heard it before I felt it. A split-second passed before a searing, burning sensation lit up my bum. I bit down hard on my bottom lip, my body rocked forward, my feet slipped on the worn rug. The agony was sensational. The headmaster was indeed a “master” with the cane. With many years of experience he had developed the knack of inflicting maximum pain to a boy with seemingly minimum effort.
He hacked out a cough and took his aim once more. The cane sought out the underside of my buttocks, at that most sensitive spot where the buttocks meet the thigh. It was also what we called “the sit-upon spot”, that part that connected with the chair you sat down. If the cane lashed there you would feel it for hours (at least) later, whenever you tried to sit down.
The headmaster caught me a beauty and before I had time to feel it he landed a second right next to it. I now had a throbbing strip of agony about an inch wide running the entire length of my bum. I could feel the welts rising. The floorboards creaked. The headmaster was taking a walk. I was too concerned with the agony in my arse that was throbbing out in all directions through my body to pay him much attention. My hair was soaked with sweat, my heart pounded and my temples pulsated just as intensely as my backside.
It seemed an eternity before I felt the headmaster place his whippy rattan cane across my bum once more. This time, he went higher; to the top of the globs, closer to the spine. He was determined that no square inch of my rear end would escape his administrations.
Swish! Crack! Ouch!
I had been determined not to make a fuss but stroke number four knocked the wind out of me, my mouth gaped open and then closed and repeated the movement until I resembled a goldfish out of water. Air hissed through my (now no longer shut) teeth and I let out an immense groan of pain. I couldn’t help myself; it was a reflex action, my body’s natural way of coping with the pain.
Miraculously, I held my position, back arched, fingertips on toes, knees straight. Two more strokes to go.
I heard him move his position and felt the cane explore my buttocks from a different angle. Oh My God! Sweet Jesus! Before he had aimed across my cheeks from left to right, delivering four parallel lines of pain. Now he was going from the lower part of my left cheek across to the top of the right. A diagonal. The Brute! Crack, it was the hardest stroke yet. It went at a speed of a million miles a second and landed across the four throbbing welts. I shrieked and jumped to my feet, hands gripping my ripped bum. I bounded from foot to foot while simultaneously howling. I must have looked like I was doing some Red Indian (sorry, Native American) dance. I bent double, knees buckled, puffing for breath. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
The headmaster watched me from a distance, a half smile of satisfaction, cracking his heavy jowls. He flexed his cane and pointed it towards the spot where until a moment ago I had been bending. “We have not finished. Resume the position.”
If looks could kill I am certain he would have died on the spot. My bum was red raw, it felt like I had sat in a bathtub of scalding water. I couldn’t take any more. The headmaster glowered. “Bend over.”
With a superhuman determination I first straightened myself and then limped back to my position on the rug. Despite my trembling I parted my legs and bent forward. I could not believe how red the backs of my hands were. My blood pressure must have been off the scale.
I waited for the final stroke. Of course, the bastard laid his cane across the opposite diagonal, lifted it high and completed the perfect “X” across my bum. I don’t know how I managed it but I stayed down, touching toes, until the headmaster intoned, “Stand!”
I jumped to my feet. I couldn’t look the headmaster in the eye. My bum was beyond painful. The agony was so intense I could no longer feel it. I suppose that’s what athletes mean when they say they went beyond the “pain barrier.”
Without waiting for further instructions I hauled up my trousers and as best I could in the circumstances, I buttoned up.
The headmaster laid his cane down on his large walnut desk. He seemed a little unsteady on his feet. His face was deathly white when he turned to me and said, “That was for your own good. You will thank me for this one day.”
It wasn’t and I didn’t. I failed my exams and never went up to the varsity.
Picture credit: Darrien
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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