You sit alone in the sixth-form common room. Sun beams shine in your eyes magnified by the glass in the closed window but you can’t be bothered to move. The cushion on your “easy chair” is misshapen, one of the elasticated slates holding it in place is broken. You slump down in it and survey the room. At least half of the chairs are in some state of disrepair. A Formica-topped table is worn and chipped. A folded up page of the Daily Mirror, wedged under one leg keeps it from wobbling. The battered tea urn stands by a sink full of unwashed mugs. The rubbish bin overflows. Nothing changes in that room.
You stare at the clock on the wall. You have seen it many times. You know like a pub clock it is set a few minutes fast, an failed confidence trick to induce pupils to get to lessons on time. The words “London County Council” are engraved in large black letters across the white face. A successful deterrent against theft. It is almost four o’clock; nearly time for your appointment.
You hold a copy of George in your hand. Twenty-four pages of A4 Roneo’d paper held together by two staples. There is still a faint whiff of methylated spirits on it. The illegal school magazine; published this morning. One hundred and twenty copies distributed – free of charge. You know it will cost you three weeks wages from your Saturday job at Freeman, Hardy and Willis. You think it is worth it.
You flick through the pages; past the jokes and cartoons, through the short stories and “investigative journalism” to land at the poems. Your poem. Three verses, twenty-four lines. You don’t read it again, there is no need as you know the words off by heart. A poem? It is not poetry, more like doggerel. You don’t care. It has your initials on it; people know who wrote it. That is the point.
You think of Miss Lowenstein, the fearsome old battle-axe. You know she has been in Mr Henderson’s ear the whole day. “Something must be done. He cannot be allowed to get away with this,” she has been saying. Or something quite similar. No one at the school likes Miss Lowenstein. She really is an old crone. One of the ugliest women you’ve ever seen; hair pulled back tightly in a bun, buck teeth, blotted skin and a gammy leg, courtesy of childhood polio.
You had her for English since the fourth year. In her first class she says she is a tough disciplinarian and calls herself a “martinet” and when no one can tell her what that word means she makes you look it up in the dictionary. She sets herself apart from the other women teachers; no way can you call her “miss”; it’s “ma’am.” She has a mean streak and is a bully and vindictive. You are counting on that. Your verse doesn’t name her, but everyone knows who you mean by the “Old Crow.”
You have to go see Mr Henderson in his office at four. He’s head of Upper School. You don’t see much of him usually; your comprehensive school has about 1,600 pupils, it’s like a factory. Mr Henderson is in charge of discipline. You think the Old Crow wants him to cane you for your insolence. You wring your copy of George in your hands, twisting it into a cylinder. Yes, you think to yourself. You, eighteen years old, a prefect, just about to leave school for ever about to get the cane. God! You hope so!
You don’t know when you first started dreaming of corporal punishment. You think you have been fascinated by this forever. Sometimes you go over someone’s knee (you’re not sure whose but preferably someone big and strong). Mostly, you are in the headmaster’s study for six-of-the-best from a whippy, curve handled rattan cane. You are in an elite public boarding school which is a world away from the inner city comprehensive you go to. In real life, you have never been caned, not even spanked, in your life. It is, you reckon, now or never. Your last chance.
The hand on the clock is moving too slowly. You climb out of the broken chair and pace the room. You pause by the door, your ears prick up, you listen for sounds in the corridor outside. You hear none, but to be safe you inch open the door and peek outside. You confirm you are alone. You walk back into the room, your heart beats fast. You approach the chair you were sitting on, then stand behind it. You close your eyes, a headmaster with an aged academic gown across his shoulders and a battered mortar-board cap on his head is swishing a cane through the air. He leans forward, taps the back of the chair with the tip of the cane. “Bend over, Crosby!” he intones. In the sixth-form common room you lean forward and stretch over the chair. You grasp the cheap foam filled cushion and spread your legs. You keep your bottom high and your head low. The headmaster lays the first swipe across your meaty buttocks.
When the six-of-the-best is over, you rise to your feet. You are breathless and your cock is twitching. The fantasy is great and you hope Mr Henderson has a big armchair waiting for you. It is hot but you don’t open the window; you find your blazer and climb into it. It is an ordinary black jacket with the school crest on the pocket; it’s nothing like the green and yellow ones the boys at the grammar school wear. You do up all three buttons and then pull at your necktie. Boys at the school ever do up their ties, but you want to look the part. The submissive schoolboy summoned to the headmaster’s study. Something exciting is happening to you but you can’t find the words to describe it.
The minute-hand on the clock judders to twelve. It is time. Mr Henderson’s room is along the corridor outside the sixth-form common room. In your dreams there is always a long walk to the study and you go through a cobbled quadrangle into a building with ivy-covered walls and mullioned windows. The passageway is lined with oak doors. Your real school is a concrete-and-glass monstrosity. The corridor has grey, scratched plastic floor tiles. Each door is constructed with some new-fangled artificial material. You could be at the offices of the municipal council.
You stop outside Mr Henderson’s door. You read his name typewritten on a card stuck on with Sellotape. You check your tie, pull at the hems of your blazer and check the shine on your shoes. You are wearing fashionable wet-look slip-ons with a faux silver buckles. You bought them at a discount at the shop where you work. In your mind you are at St, Alphonso’s, a fine public school for the sons of gentlemen. The time is about sixty years ago. You knock on the door. There is a faint noise from within that sounds like, “Come in,” so you press down on the door handle and push.
You are surprised to see Miss Lowenstein there. It heartens you. She is determined to make sure you get your caning and she is personally going to witness it. You have never been in the room before. It is very small. You stand as best you can in front of his tiny desk. Unlike those in your imagination it is small, functional and clearly not built from walnut. It is in a mess and piled high with files and official documents. He sits in a wooden armchair and there are two plastic chairs, purloined at some time from a classroom, in front of the desk. You see a metal filing cabinet in a corner and there are some metal shelves screwed to walls. And that is it. You see no stuffed armchairs, no ancient Chesterfield couch, no open fire, no cabinet of sports trophies, no packed bookcases with leather-bound volumes and most disappointingly of all, no umbrella stand in the corner with three or four crook-handled canes of varying thicknesses dangling from it.
You see this is not a headmaster’s study, it is the office of a middle manager. Miss Lowenstein moves to one side of you and is now out of your eyeline. Your disappointment grows when you look at Mr Henderson. You see no academic gown or cap only a middle-aged man with a beer gut man in a scruffy shirt and plain tie. His beige trousers were purchased at a cheap chain store many years ago.
You know your school has not abolished corporal punishment, but no one can remember the last time a boy was caned. That has always been a disappointment to you. You hear at the grammar the cane is swished through the air every day by enthusiastic schoolmasters. If you were a boy there you could be caned as often as you wished – you know smoking cigarettes is a caning offence. You would be on forty a day.
Now you realise your cunning plan is about to come to nothing. Mr Henderson probably doesn’t believe in the cane. He has only summoned you for a ticking off. You think maybe he will make you write a letter of apology to the Old Crow.
Mr Henderson doesn’t quite know what to say. He calls you “Crombie,” which isn’t quite your name. He mumbles something about how awful you have been. He says your behaviour is “ugly” and you suppress a laugh, thinking that word perfectly describes Miss Lowenstein. You tune out, no longer listening. You want to get out of there and go home. You know you can make this into a fantasy when you are in your bedroom. You hear words but they seem to be coming from a long way off as if drifting on the wind. You realise he has stopped speaking. He is waiting for you to say something. You are unsure if he has asked you a question. You mumble, “Sorry sir”, just to say something.
Then you hear him say, “I am going to cane you.” You wake up at that. You stare at Mr Henderson seeking confirmation that you heard correctly. He is on his feet now and your eyes follow him as he takes the short distance across his office. He reaches the filing cabinet. You have not noticed until now on top of it lies a short stick. You see it is no crook-handled whippy cane beloved of public schoolmasters. It is a piece of bamboo, a little over two feet long. You watch him pick it up and you see it is rigid and impossible to bend. It looks like a garden cane but you are not sure as there are no gardens anywhere near where you live.
You see Mr Henderson is uncomfortable with the stick in his hand. He looks embarrassed. He does not swish the cane through the air and it is too stiff for him to flex into an arc. You hear him speak the wonderful words you have waited to hear all your life, “Bend over.” Your throat dries. You take another look around the room and you confirm there is nothing to bend over. The desk is piled high with files; the plastic chairs are too low. You look at Mr Henderson for guidance. His face is flushed. The heat in the airless office and the stress of the moment disturbs him. He points the cane at a space in between his desk and the door.
You take his hint. You shuffle a pace and a half. “Face that way,” he says, so that you have your back to the desk. You see Miss Lowenstein hobble away and flop down into Mr Henderson’s chair. She is giving herself the perfect view. Mr Henderson has not given the time-honoured command “touch your toes”. Many times at home you pretend you are one of the boys sent for “six on the bags” as the old school stories have it. Often you dress in black blazer and grey trousers and pose in front of the full-length mirror in the hall of your council flat. You bend over touching toes and admire the tight contours of your bum. Your uniform is ordinary and so are you: standing at about five-foot-seven, a little over eight-stone in weight, and properly proportioned.
You take a deep breath and bend from the trunk. You keep your knees straight and by parting your feet a little you are able to brush your fingertips against your shiny black shoes. You feel your tight cotton briefs dig into the crack between your cheeks. You know that your buttocks are filling out the back of your trousers and presenting a marvellous target. You wait staring down at the worn industrial-strength carpet. You recall all those times in front of the mirror. You don’t mind how much this hurts, you will shut your teeth and bear it; like the boys in the stories you love so much.
There is no swish as the Head of Upper School makes his preparation. Suddenly there is a dull thud and you realise the cane has landed on your bum. You feel it but there is no agony, no intense pain, not even a throbbing ache. The second and third stoke land. What a disappointment. You hardly feel a thing. You realise Mr Henderson’s heart is not in this. You feel terribly let down.
He gives you six strokes. You have not been caned before and know of no other boy who has. You have nothing to compare it to, except your fantasies. You know that this was not “six-of-the best.” It couldn’t be. You should be howling with pain, jumping up and down from foot to foot and furiously rubbing away at your savaged backside. Instead you remain bending over, hoping that this is not all. Somehow you have learnt the etiquette is for a boy to stay in position, fingertips on toecaps until the master gives permission to stand up. In the stories failure in this respect leads to additional strokes. You would be quite content to get extras, nonetheless you continue to admire the faded blue carpet.
You hear Mr Henderson moving behind you and there is a rattling sound as he replaces the cane on the top of the filing cabinet. Then you hear him say rather absent-mindedly, “You should stand up now.” You do so. Your head feels funny but you think that is because you have been upside down and blood has rushed into your brain. You feel deep disappointment and wonder if your face shows it. If you are nonchalant and make it clear the caning did not hurt would Mr Henderson fly into a rage, sweep the files from the desk, grip you by the neck, hurl you facedown across the desk and proceed to thrash the living daylights out of you?
Clearly not, as Mr Henderson simply says, “You should go now.” You look towards Miss Lowenstein. She has a face like thunder. She too is not impressed by Mr Henderson’s lack of prowess with the cane. She wants to see you clutching your bum in agony and choking back sobs. For the first time in your life, you sympathise with her.
You turn away, open the door and you are in the corridor. In some of the stories you know at this point a boy is rubbing his backside furiously as he rushes back to his study. You do have a sneaky feel of the seat of your trousers, a quick rub with your thumb, but there is no sensation. You can go to the lavs to inspect the damage but you know you will find none. So, you return to the sixth-form common room and collect your vinyl holdall before going home seeing yourself as another victim of the failing comprehensive school system.
Picture credit: Hotspur
Other stories you might like:
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second