I was heading for the 10.14 train up to town when I turned into the High Street and was passing the Sixpenny Bazaar at Tomkinson’s when I remembered I needed a packet of razor blades. When I got to the soap counter the manager, or whatever you call him, was cursing the boy in charge there. Generally there aren’t many people in the Sixpenny at that hour of the morning. Sometimes if you go int here just after opening time you see all the boys lined up in a row and given their daily curse, just to keep them in order.
They say these big chain stores have chaps with special powers who are sent from branch to branch to ginger the boys up. The manager was squat with an oblong-shaped face, set in a permanent frown. His eyes were deep set and dark. A neatly clipped moustache, the style so beloved of English Fascists, failed to conceal a mean mouth.
He had just pounced on the boy about something, some mistake, and ordered him into a little back office. It was one of those rooms that have the wall divided down the middle. The bottom half is some cheap board material and the top is clear glass. I could see – and hear – everything that was going on.
“No, of course you didn’t count it,” he berated the boy. Apparently, some stock had been misplaced. The boy, who was probably about eighteen or more, was a callow youth. His pasty face was almost entirely hidden by big, bulbous spots. He was maybe about five-three tall and really quite thin. The product of a lifetime of poor diet, no doubt. The boy shuffled from foot to foot and stared down at the cheap linoleum floor.
I turned quickly, fearing he might catch me watching and pretended to be interested in some stuff at the next counter. But, the manager’s voice was both loud and shrill and you could hear it half way across the shop.
“Course, you didn’t count it,” he wasn’t about to let the boy off the hook. This went on for what felt like several minutes, but probably wasn’t that long. I edged away a little and sneaked another look. The boy had turned quite pink now and I could see his eyelids were flickering madly and his brow was covered with sweat. The boys and girls at the other counters were pretending not to hear.
Finally, the manager decided he had said enough and strutted out of the office, leaving the boy standing there. I watched astonished as the manager strode with great purpose across the shop floor. He halted at the far end where I saw him delve into a large vase-like ornament. It was one of those fake-Chinese pots that you see in the reception areas of the larger picture houses. They are usually full of sand and are there for customers to stub out cigarettes. This vase had a different purpose. It was full of whippy, curve-handled school canes.
You can buy such canes in any High Street and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the fathers in Brocklehurst didn’t have at least one of the specimens tucked away in their homes. They were, naturally, in constant use in schools up and down the land.
The manager rattled the rattan canes around in the earthenware container for a while before withdrawing one. It was not much longer than two feet and quite thin. He shoved it back in and had another go. It was like he was trying the lucky dip in the bran tub at a travelling fair. This time he selected a longer, thicker rod. He tested it between his hands and I could see it was dense but terrifically whippy. The manager did not disguise his intention, he swiped it a couple of times through the air and satisfied that it was up to the job, he turned on his heels and retraced his steps to the office.
The boy had gone quite pale by now. He stood, hands behind his back, eyes still downward. He seemed from a distance to be perfectly still, but I suspect his hands were shaking as he clasped them tightly together behind his back, rather in the way that King George does.
The manager swished his cane. He had no academic gown on his back or mortar board on his head but he looked every inch like an irate schoolmaster. An involuntary shudder ran up my back. I was transported back several decades to St. Francis Independent Grammar School, my own alma mater. I was a frequent visitor to the housemaster’s study (weren’t we all, it was that type of school). I would have been about the same age as the boy when I was last summoned. It would have been weeks before the final examinations. “Slacking,” the housemaster intoned. “Not working hard enough. Letting the school down.”
My thumbs rubbed against the seat of my trousers; after so many years I can still remember the pain. The ridges remained imprinted across my backside for about a week.
I watched the boy turn his back on the manager and then in one simple movement, he leaned forward until he was spread-eagled across a small desk. He lay with his stomach flat on the wooden top, his arms reaching to the sides and his head facing north. He spread his legs and wriggled so that his bottom was raised over the edge. Clearly, he had been in this position before, submissively offering himself up to his master.
Why did he do it? Pure fear of course. Put one foot wrong, disobey an order and you get the sack. It’s the same everywhere. There’s always some lump of a lad – young men really – who all but tug their forelocks at customers. “Yes, sir, how may I help you madam?” The customer is always right. The boy lives in mortal dread that you might report him to his boss for impertinence and lose him his job.
I had a perfect view and so did many of the other shop workers. As far as I remember I was the only customer present. The boy shut his eyes tight, his bottom quivered in anticipation of the ordeal about to start. The manager took his time. I wonder how many times in a week he went through this routine. Was there a boy (or indeed a girl) in the shop who had not been similarly positioned at some time? Have you noticed how many petty managers are really Little Hitlers. Drunk with power. They act abominably because they know they can get away with it.
Or maybe, they live in fear of their own bosses. Later would the manager have to account for the missing stock. How would his boss own react to the news? Was the manager due a whipping himself?
He took up position to the side of the boy and rubbed his cane across the centre of his buttocks. The boy’s trousers had ridden up and dug into his cheeks so that each buttock was lifted and separated. That made a terrific target. The cane was whippy and the manager made it bounce off the boy’s hard bottom as he tap, tap, tapped it to get his aim. Then in a swift movement he lifted the cane away so that it made a perfect arc; he took it to shoulder height before returning it with considerable force so that it crashed into the boy’s hard meat.
The Crack! of cane across trouser seat echoed around the shop. The boy’s fellow workers pretended to be busy at their counters, tidying stock and folding items. I watched fascinated. The boy’s head rose from the desk and he expelled air through clenched teeth. It sounded in all the world like a steam engine settling down. His bum rose and fell. It must have been a reflex action because the boy quickly steadied himself, ready for stroke number two.
The manager was in no hurry to deliver it. He made a tour of his office, the cane tucked under his arm, in the way of a sergeant-major. This gave him time to admire his handiwork. A line had appeared across the very centre of the boy’s rear end. It had been a perfect hit, across the fleshiest part of the bum.
When he was ready, the manager took his aim once more. This time, he went a little lower, into the undercurves. He laid it on with tremendous vim. It swiped down about a half inch below the first. The boy’s head banged up and down on the desk top. His hips wriggled, but this time he made no sound (that I could hear). The manager went for another walk before settling down for the third stroke, which he slashed down just above the first. The boy now had three blazing stripes running in parallel across his cheeks, making a band of pain about two inches wide. The manager was clearly an expert with the cane. I suppose he had practiced a lot.
The manager was sweating by now. The effort for a man of his size must have been considerable and I imagine that the office was warm and airless. He rested the cane on the desk, leaving it where the boy could enjoy a close up view of it, and then took a large white handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the sweat that soaked his face and neck. Then, he folded it in half and then in quarters before fastidiously returning it to his pocket. He picked up the cane, swished it through the air a couple of times and was ready to resume his duty.
The final three strokes were laid on as if he were beating a carpet. He put tremendous beef into each one. Apart from a little wriggling and head shaking the boy took it well, although he must have been in considerable agony. I remember from my schooldays that a severe caning left me feeling that the housemaster had forced me to sit on the embers of the open fire in his study.
The manager commanded that the boy stand up and I watched him rise while trying to muster as much dignity as the circumstances allowed. His face was scarlet and covered in perspiration. He looked at his tormentor and in so doing glanced me watching from a distance. With extreme embarrassment, I bought three penny razor blades and made to leave.
The boy was looking at me as I went out the door. He’d have murdered me if he could. How he hated me because of what I’d seen. Much more than he hated the manager.
Picture credit: Unknown
CHARLES’ NOTE: A quick nod of gratitude to George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’ for the inspiration.
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second