You walk slowly, pacing yourself. You are in no hurry. You turn the corner and enter a narrow, gloomy, dank passageway. Natural light never intrudes here. A whiff of damp walls, mildew possibly, hits you. That smell is everywhere. Ivy-covered walls and mullioned windows may speak to history and tradition but they fail to hide decay.
Trudge, trudge, trudge. Your bedroom slippers never did fit properly and you shuffle along like an old man. Your dressing-gown is loosely tied. Away from this cold passageway the sun is still awake and late spring saunters into summer. The evening is warm, you have no practical need for the gown. You wear it as a matter of modesty; your pyjamas are protection enough.
The passageway is not long. You walk at a snail’s pace but you reach your final destination soon enough. A dark panelled door. Heavy wood. Chipped and scratched. Like so much of this place, it has seen better days. You pause, your heart beats faster. Your palms sweat. You look closely at the familiar sign, noting not for the first time that one of the screws that attaches it to the door is missing. H. L. T. Haddock, Housemaster. You and your pals long ago exhausted all the jokes attached to that name. You run the back of your hand under your nose. It helps to curb your growing nervousness a little.
You crane your neck forward, almost, but not quite, placing your ear against the door. You don’t know what you expect to hear. Maybe you are not the only visitor this evening. The door is made of oak (you think); it is certainly thick and muffles sounds from inside the room. In your head you count slowly up to ten. One hippopotamus … two hippopotamus … You cannot put this off any longer. You rub your palms against the thick woollen dressing-gown once more, suck in a gulp of air, ball your right hand into a fist, raise it against the door and with more confidence than you truly feel, rap your knuckles against a panel.
Silence. It seems to last forever. You have doubts. Is Haddock at home? Do you have the right time? Was Rustington Minor ragging when he delivered the summons to you? Was this the fags’ idea of a joke. Was there to be a reprieve?
“Come!” The call is imperious. You hear it loud and clear despite the deadening thickness of the door. Your spine tingles as if caught by a draught. This is it, you think. Over the top. Time to go. You can’t put this off any longer. You wipe the palm of your hand again. You reach for the dull brass handle. Twist it. Put some weight against the door and slowly ease it open.
You are hit by the familiar aroma; pipe smoke and stale human sweat. You clear the threshold and stand for a moment transfixed. Nothing has changed since your last visit. Haddock sits in a worn armchair, the Daily Telegraph open on his lap. His pipe smoulders in an ashtray on a small table to his left. He is dressed in his civvies; baggy black trousers with bold white stripes, a shirt with soft collar attached, a cardigan buttoned to his chest. Bedroom slippers on his feet. You see his housemaster’s “uniform” of mortar-board cap and flowing academic gown hanging from a hat stand in one corner of the room.
The atmosphere is close and fuggy. You see wisps of pipe smoke reflected in a sunbeam that streams through the only window in the study that is capable of opening. “Close the door, boy!” Haddock barks at you. Like Pavlov’s dog you obey the command instinctively. That done, you stand submissively, hands clasped behind back. You wait. You are in no hurry. You know how this scenario will play out.
Haddock carefully folds his newspaper, ensuring that all the pages are carefully aligned. He puts it down on the table next to his pipe, safeguarding that it is not so close as to cause a fire. He lifts himself from the chair. You watch him as he moves across the room and stands with his back to the open, but on this sultry evening, unlit fireplace. Like you, he places his hands behind his back. You face one another: man to man. Haddock is a man in his later years (you suppose, but you boys believe that thirty is old). Despite his age he stands with a ramrod back. He is maybe five-eight tall at the most but his presence dominates the room. His chest is broad but his stomach soft. His forehead is high and his hair thin. His jowls sag and his once clear, blue eyes no longer penetrate as they used to.
He begins to speak. Your brain switches off. You know why you are here. You know what is going to happen. You understand there are rituals to this. He talks of your “breaking bounds”. You have been warned before. Disobedience. Intolerable behaviour. You have been to the Three Fishers. Again. It is a disreputable pub. You go there to beat the oiks from the village at billiards. It is an easy task. Billiards, like chess, is a game of intellect. They are no match for you. You despise the working classes. What is it that Cameron calls them? “Thick as two short planks” (whatever that means).
Suddenly there is a silence in the room. You realise with a start Haddock has finished jawing. He is glaring at you. Oh scissors! he must have asked you a question. You see Haddock’s face redden. Soon it will be puce. “Pah!” he ejaculates. “Do not add dumb insolence to your list of crimes.”
You wait for him to repeat the question. No, you have nothing to say for yourself. You are guilty as charged. You do not tell him that you made several visits undetected to the Three Fishers this term. You know it was bad luck this time. Seagrass, the new junior mathematics master, was in the “snug” bar? You are pragmatic: you win some, you lose some.
Your eyes follow Haddock as he walks across the study. It is a medium-sized room mark dark by mahogany wall panels. It is dominated by a huge, leather-topped desk. You guess it weighs a ton. It has six drawers in two columns of three and would need several men to move it. There are two armchairs, each with a wooden frame covered by a tough fabric coloured green. Like so much at the school they are not in the full flush of youth. There are three equally heavy straight-backed wooden chairs arranged along one wall. Glass-fronted bookcases cover two walls. In one corner is the aforementioned hat stand, in another is a tall, thin cupboard.
You know where Haddock is headed. You see him pause at the cupboard, straighten his back and with his right hand delve into a pocket in his trousers. You see it is deep and his hand rummages around. To you the pocket seems to be empty. You see his impatience as he fishes around. At last he withdraws his fist. You see between his fingers he holds a small silver-coloured key. You suck down on your bottom lip, rub sweaty palms against the dressing-gown. You watch as he fumbles to get the key in the lock, his irritation growing. Success. The key turns, the door squeaks open. From where you are standing you cannot see inside the cupboard. You watch Haddock lean into the cupboard. It is not large. A rattling sound confirms what you already know. You see him withdraw a long, thin yellow cane. He peers at it intently and replaces it. You wipe your palms one more time.
You watch Haddock pull out a second cane. It is longer and thicker than the first. Your throat tightens as he turns to face you. It is a darkish-yellow-almost-brown colour. You recognise it. It is his Malay cane. It is denser than Haddock’s standard “senior” canes but has the traditional crooked handle. You know it will pack a punch. You are not impressed as Haddock holds the cane at the handle with one hand and its tip with the other and flexes it. Then he swipes it through the air. It travels at a terrific whoosh! You know schoolmasters always do this with their canes. It is another part of the ceremony. You know this is designed to intimidate a boy. Not you. You have seen it all before.
You know Haddock is nearly ready, but there are more formalities to come. Your hand is steady as you undo the belt on your dressing-gown and shake it off your body. You fold it lengthways and then widthways and place it carefully on his desk. You are now dressed only in your pyjamas. You know Haddock only beats a boy at lights out. You think this is supposed to add to the tension. You have spent the entire day anticipating this moment. You know housemasters have their own formalities; Forester always canes at lunchtime. With Corbin it is immediately after school. Haddock does it at the end of the day.
Haddock swishes the cane through the empty air as you manoeuvre the armchair into position. You swivel it around so that its back now faces into the room. The task completed, you stand back and respectfully put your hands behind your back. Waiting. The room is stuffy, the pipe continues to smoulder in the ashtray. The only window that opens provides no air. You feel sweat trickle down your spine, your scalp inches. Your heartbeat quickens. You can no longer see Haddock but you hear him swishing the cane. You sense his movement. He is standing directly behind you. Then he steps forward. You see him from the corner of your eye. He grips the cane in his right hand. His arm stretches. He whacks the tip of the cane across the back of the armchair. “Bend over,” he intones.
You look down at the familiar armchair. The fabric is faded in places and the material has worn through along the seams. You know as armchairs go it is modest in size and ambition. This is not a plush leather Chesterfield couch. Such furniture befits the headmaster’s study. Haddock has to make do with something that would not be out of place in a suburban sitting room. You have the measure of this chair. You know that when you bend across it and rest your elbows on the wooden arms your stomach will clear the chair’s apex by some inches. In this position your bottom should be perfectly positioned for Haddock’s purposes.
You rub your palms one last time, take a deep breath, and lean forward. You part your feet by about twelve inches and your back is arched. “Head a little lower boy. Bottom out.” You wriggle around to Haddock’s satisfaction. You feel the cotton material of your pyjamas tighten around your buttocks. You know you pack a lot of meat back there. They are firm and round and much admired by the fellows in the baths after rugby.
You don’t consider the incongruity of your situation. Here you are eighteen years old offering up your bottom for an older man to beat with a whippy cane. To you it is just how things are. It doesn’t occur to you that none of the oiks from the Three Fishers are submitting to similar punishment. You stare down at the squashed seat cushion. It is stained with the sweat of countless backsides. How many hundreds of visitors have sat in that chair? And, how many generations of schoolboys have bent over its back?
These are not questions that concern you much. You sense Haddock moving again. Then, you feel him touch your buttocks with the cane. He is sawing it across the fleshiest parts. He is taking his aim. You know this is going to hurt. A very great deal. A caning from Haddock across trousers and underpants would be awesome, when delivered with only thin cotton pyjamas for protection it will be tremendous. You know some chaps have tried to sneak underpants under their pyjama bottoms. Barchester was busted for this. He failed to realise that once a chap is stretched over the armchair their outline becomes clearly visible. Barchester’s backside resembled a map of Clapham Junction railway once Haddock had delivered a bare-arsed flogging as retribution.
You feel the cane tapping. Your buttocks tense. They always do this. It is a natural reflex. You grind your teeth. Swipe! Crack! Pyjamas are a poor protection against a cane well laid on. The Malay cane struck just on your undercurve, where the bum meets the thigh. You gasp with shock as an intense line of pain bites deep. It feels like Haddock has pressed a red-hot poker into your flesh.
You can’t see the ghost of a smile as Haddock’s jowls wobble in satisfaction. You might not know it but many believe your bottom cries out to be beaten. It has certainly been caned many times before and might be again before you leave school in July.
If the bottom cries out, you do not. You feel the intense pain subside a little. The cane rises and falls whistling as it goes. You grip the chair and stifle a yelp. Now you have two lines of pain throbbing across the bum, a quarter of an inch apart. The pain sears from your buttocks and runs up and down your legs. Your knees buckle, but you keep in position. Waiting for Number Three.
You hear a grunt behind you. Haddock puts all his beef into it. The cut takes you on the back of the thighs. It is a deliberate act by the housemaster; he has had enough practice with the cane. You struggle to stay calm. It sucks the breath from your body. Your hips sway and your head bounces up and down. This is a natural thing to do. It is how a boy’s body reacts when under attack.
The next slashes higher. You bunch your fingers into fists and punch them into the seat cushion. “Sssssss!” air escapes through your lips. The pain is beyond belief. Much harder than anything you have endured before. It starts on the crown of your bum and travels north-south-east-west through your body. Each stroke has been a swipe. It’s as if Haddock is beating a carpet.
Beneath the stretched pyjamas you feel weals forming. You know each is raised off the surface of the bum and as thick as a pencil. They run in almost perfect parallel from left to right. You stamp your feet up and down like a soldier on sentry duty. The agony is overwhelming. You can’t take much more of this.
Haddock does the tapping thing again. Taking aim. This time higher on the crest of the mounds, closer to your back. Your bottom quivers. Behind your master takes a step or two back and admires his handiwork. He sees your face and neck are scarlet. He knows your bum is just as red. He can see lines embossed in your pyjama trousers showing exactly where the cane landed.
You tell yourself, “Four down, only two more to go.” It is nearly over. You regain more control of your breathing but your temples throb and blood is cascading through your arteries. Then your heart almost literally stops. Haddock has changed position again. This time he lays the cane across your bottom not from left to right as before but from the bottom of the left buttock to the top of the right. You realise at once what this means: it is to be diagonal shot. Before you can prepare, a crack like a pistol shot resounds around the room. Haddock slashes the cane down with considerable force across the four welts already emblazoned across your rear end. You shriek as each of the previous cuts are brought back to life. The tempo of your military marching doubles. You bang your head up and down against the seat cushion, but nothing, nothing at all, eases the agony.
Your buttocks are ripped to shreds. They might even be bleeding. Your eyes blaze as much as your bum but you do not cry. You will not cry. A chap under the cane is allowed to holler. It can be mightily difficult not to. But you know you must not blub. Even the junior chaps know that. You must take it like a man.
You fear the very worst. Haddock moves to your right and places the cane along the opposite diagonal. Within a second you have a perfect “X” imprinted across your bum. It seems to have swollen to twice its normal size. But it also feels numb as if you have reached some threshold of pain that cannot be surpassed. You hear Haddock step across the study and open the door to the cupboard. You continue to stare at the seat cushion. You bum is raw but even now, only seconds after the final cut flogged you, the pain is easing down. Soon it will be a constant throb. The worst is over. You have survived. The cuts will still be painful for some time to come. You know you will be sleeping in on your side tonight. Tomorrow you will not be able to sit comfortably on a hard surface. You will have welts and bruises for many days.
“You may remove yourself,” the instruction seems to come from a far distance. You take a deep breath and using your elbows as levers you resume a standing position. The seat of your pyjama trousers are stuck to your bum. You worry that you might be bleeding. You desperately want to caress your cheeks to discover the truth but you know this must wait. You know Haddock doesn’t like a fuss after he beats a boy and soon he will dismiss you.
He returns to his armchair and peers down at his pipe in the ashtray. “Go,” he says absent-mindedly and waves a hand at the door. As you struggle with the handle and heavy door you see him pick up a box of matches. It rattles as he shakes it. He clenches the pipe between his teeth then opens the box, takes a match, strikes it and shielding the flame he sets light to the tobacco in the bowl.
You leave and run along the passageway towards the bogs.
Picture credit: CP Services London
Coming soon: The story from the housemaster’s point-of-view.
Other stories you might like
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second