Stephen Spreadbury was twenty-five years old and a rising star at Ponsonby-Meredith. His clean-cut affable demeanour ready smile and his ability to flatter when necessary were a big success with the stockbrokers’ women clients (and it has to be said, quite a few of the men). He made the partnership a lot of money. He would go far.
Then things started to go wrong. The smile was less fixed, the soft-soap had less lather, accounts were not closed on time, the money was not coming in as it once had; percentages were pared. Spreadbury had lost his touch. In the language of the cricket pitch; it was considered he had taken his eye off the ball. He had let things slip. He no longer brought in the money. Some days he didn’t make it into the office until lunchtime.
Mr Algernon Ponsonby, the senior partner, had seen it all before. He had been in his chair for close to thirty years. His men had made him a pile of money in that time. He expected that to continue. Spreadbury had been a golden goose. But not so much lately. The young man needed to concentrate on his work; Mr Ponsonby wanted his percentages, he had his winter home in the Bahamas to consider.
He summoned Spreadbury to his office. Mr Ponsonby had luncheoned well. He leaned back in his overlarge leather chair and caressed his stomach. Often at this hour of the day, it gave him trouble. The pain was tolerable, this afternoon. His florid face was testimony to the bottle of vintage claret he had drunk at the club. He shook his head, sipped water from a pewter goblet and hoped his aching gut would not get worse.
His secretary, a woman even older than Mr Ponsonby himself, announced Spreadbury’s arrival. She was a tiny, bird-like spinster who often gave the appearance of being half-starved. Her shoulders hunched and her spindly legs looked incapable of holding up her body. “The boy is here,” she cackled, her long nose pointed to the door behind her, “Shall I send him in?” Her cold grey eyes sneered through spectacles.
“Yes please, Miss Alsop,” Mr Ponsonby had known the woman when man and boy but had never once been at comfort in her presence. What passed for a smile troubled her face and she turned slowly, almost painfully, to retrace her steps to the door. Back in her own room she examined the young man standing there at ease. He was tall, a little thick-set; with a shock of hair over a wide-open face. He had the look of a contented man, he oozed “entitlement”; he was destined to get whatever he wanted. Oh, how she despised him.
“Mr Ponsonby will see you now,” she said haughtily. “Go in straight away.” She did not try to hide her distain. “What did they all see in him?” she wondered as she watched him stride confidently out of her room, “They’re all the same. Just overgrown schoolboys.” She saw him knock on the office door, wait for the command “Come!” and then enter. She shuffled to the door of her own room and opened it wide so she would hear everything.
Spreadbury closed the door and stood uncertainly. He had no idea why he had been called. He might be considered by many to be “on his way up” in the hierarchy of the firm, but he was still a relatively junior member of staff. He was a little surprised that Mr Ponsonby even knew who he was. His eyes travelled around the room. It was huge, as befitting the senior partner of a moneyed firm. It was dominated by a walnut desk the size of a tennis court. A pair of luxurious padded armchairs around a heavy glass table were at the far end. A Chesterfield couch was close by. Along one wall were shelves filled with leather-bound tomes; none of which appeared ever to have been opened. An ornate cupboard (a drinks cabinet, Spreadbury guessed) was towards one side of an open, but unlit, fireplace. A chest of drawers completed the furniture as far as he could see. It was a magnificent office, all set off by the deep-pile carpet underneath his feet.
Spreadbury waited hoping his impatience would not show. The bars were open and he had a regular appointment at Harry’s. At last his boss spoke. “Spreadbury,” he intoned. “I have received reports …” he then went on to list the young man’s successes. Spreadbury’s chest puffed out. He loved to be praised. Maybe this visit would not be a waste of his time after all.
Mr Ponsonby paused and peered closely at the young man standing, hands respectfully behind his back, “But,” he rasped and after taking a sip from his goblet, he listed the junior’s many inadequacies. Spreadbury bit down on his bottom lip, he felt his face flush. His pride was hurt. Such unkind things were said.
Mr Ponsonby was not a man to waste his time. “You are slacking. It will not do Spreadbury,” he grimaced as his stomach rumbled. “Not at all. This must stop. Action must be taken.” He paused and wriggled in his chair. Spreadbury’s mouth opened to argue but just in time good sense prevailed. Mr Ponsonby had spoken the truth.
“You are an Old St. Tom’s man,” he said. Spreadbury was startled by the sudden change of topic. Was this a question or a statement? His face betrayed puzzlement. “You were schooled at St. Tom’s,” Mr Ponsonby repeated, “So you know what to expect.” Spreadbury did not. He did know both he and Mr Ponsonby had attended St. Tom’s, an elite public boarding school for the sons of gentlemen – albeit several generations apart. That was why he had been hired at the firm – the “old school tie”. He watched Mr Ponsonby struggle to his feet. He said nothing as he wobbled across the room and reached the chest of drawers. He reached down and opened the first one. He looked inside, rummaged around and within moments found what he was seeking. He turned and faced his junior employee.
Spreadbury gasped and then a broad smile crossed his face. Mr Ponsonby was holding a long, thin school cane. It even had the traditional crook handle at one end. Spreadbury laughed heartily at Mr Ponsonby’s joke. “Oh my hat! Jimmy Edwards. Whacko!” He smiled as he watched his boss swish the rattan cane through the air, it made a terrific whooshing sound as it flew. Then he saw the expression on the old man’s face. Spreadbury’s smile evaporated.
“What are you blathering about boy?” He flexed the cane between his hands as if testing its strength.
Spreadbury coughed, embarrassed, confused. “Jimmy Edwards, Whacko! From the television. Chiselbury School.” It felt like he was digging himself a hole in the deep-pile carpet. He wished it would swallow him. “He swishes a cane all the time and threatens the boys with six-of-the-best,” he trailed off, his humiliation complete.
Whereas Spreadbury was by nature affable, genial and pleasant, with a ready wit and quick to smile, his boss had none of these attributes. He was dour, haughty, conceited and self-important. He did not watch comical programmes on the television.
“Pah! Such nonsense,” Mr Ponsonby’s once florid face was now puce. “You need to pull yourself together. Stop slacking. Knuckle down to your work,” he growled, all the time flexing the cane between his hands. “I daresay your housemaster must have beaten you many times.”
Now, Spreadbury understood the St. Tom’s connection.
Mr Ponsonby considered himself a fair man. Spreadbury was a fine worker and he would one day be a credit to the firm (and a considerable money-earner). But, like so many young men these days, he thought, he had lost his way a little. He would benefit from a guiding hand. He needed his comeuppance; to be set back on the straight and narrow. A sound beating should do the trick.
“Stand there,” he pointed with his cane to a clear space in the middle of the office. “Lower your trousers. Bend over. Touch your toes.” Mr Ponsonby was a wealthy, powerful man. It did not occur to him for one moment that Spreadbury would disobey his instruction. He was correct. St. Tom’s had trained them both well. There were rules and they had to be obeyed. Otherwise, anarchy would prevail. There were people who were in control and those who were controlled. The powerful, and the powerless. At this point in his life, Spreadbury knew his place. In time that would change. Who knew one day in the future it might be Spreadbury flexing the cane and a different junior (a St. Tom’s boy, naturally) submitting his backside.
But for now …
He looked around the room. Should he remove the jacket of his suit. Back in the day, a boy would hang his blazer on the housemaster’s hat-stand before preparing himself for a beating. It was part of the ritual. Mr Ponsonby had given no such instruction. Spreadbury would not press the point. He moved to the spot, turned his back to his boss and loosened his belt. He undid the buttons on his fly and let the trousers slip over his knees and down his shins to rest untidily over his shoes. Then, he leaned forward. It had been eight years since he left school and his once supple body had thickened since. At school “touch your toes” meant just that: “toes”. Now twenty-five years old, Spreadbury was unable to accomplish that feat. He reached down stretching his fingertips towards his toecaps, but the effort put a terrible strain on his back and his knees. He settled for a more comfortable pose with his hands firmly clutching his shins. Like that his buttocks were still raised at a convenient angle for Mr Ponsonby to do his duty.
Spreadbury felt no embarrassment, bent submissively to allow an older man to lash a thick, whippy rattan cane across his backside. St. Tom’s was what was called “a caning school”; corporal punishment was the norm. Mr Ponsonby had been correct earlier when he said Spreadbury’s housemaster would have beaten him many times. “There is one consolation,” the young man thought as he waited patiently for the punishment to begin, “at least my underpants are not at my ankles.”
He clasped his shins tightly. He looked hard at the carpet beneath his feet. It was a modern Axminister or some such, he reckoned. He tried to make out the patterns in the red, green and blue colours. He would concentrate on it; it would take his mind off his awful ordeal.
Mr Ponsonby felt no hostility to his employee. A quick dozen applied with beef across the seat of the underpants would buck his ideas up. The lesson would be learnt. Tomorrow would be another day. They would both get on with their work. The money would keep rolling in. He knew this for a fact: he had thirty years of experience to prove it.
His stomach was grumbling, his temperature was rising, the room felt unduly hot. Despite these hindrances, Mr Ponsonby set about his task with vim. He tapped the tip of the cane just below the centre of Spreadbury’s bottom. “Spread your legs, Spreadbury,” he intoned. The young man complied. The cane rose. It fell with a tremendous whoosh and crack. Spreadbury sucked in his breath and shut his eyes tight. That hurt. It had been more than eight years (not counting that little fooling around at the Varsity) since he last felt the sting of the rattan. A second and then a third stroke fell. Mr Ponsonby used all his strength; he might have been beating a carpet.
Already, Spreadbury’s bottom had three deep stripes along the underside of his bum. It hurt terrifically: had Mr Ponsonby taken a red hot poker from the fire and pressed it into his flesh? He went higher with the next set. Now, the backside glowed from the top of the mounds, and over the crowns. Spreadbury’s head ached and his temples throbbed every bit as much as his rear end. Had his housemaster’s beatings (even those on the bare) hurt so much?
Six strokes had been administered. Six-of-the-very-best. Surely, it was over. He waited, breathlessly for the command to stand. The cane whipped him again; the hardest stroke yet. Right in the underside of the cheek. He would feel that one later in the evening as he perched on the barstool at Harry’s.
“Jeez …” Spreadbury clenched his teeth. It wasn’t over. How much more of this could he take? Mr Ponsonby was not a cruel man; nor was he fit. The strain delivering the beating had sapped his energy. He was huffing and puffing more loudly than the young man under his lash. He needed to conclude this punishment. He sucked in a lung-full of air, aimed the cane, raised it and then in a flurry of action bounced the cane off the stretched backside. Whack! Whack! Whack! To Miss Alsop next door it sounded like a machinegun had been fired in Mr Ponsonby’s office. Spreadbury growled, he yelped, and some might say he even yapped as the pain increased into agony.
Mr Ponsonby stopped. This time it really was at an end. The punishment was over. Twelve strokes of the cane had been delivered (and received). He admired his handiwork. Thin lines were embossed across the white, cotton seat of Spreadbury’s underpants. He knew there would be glowing weals, each one painful to the touch. The pain would soon subside to a glowing throb, but the marks would last a few days as a reminder to work harder.
“Stand,” Mr Ponsonby commanded and he turned his back on his thrashed employee and made to return the cane to its drawer. It gave Spreadbury a moment gingerly to rub the tops of his fingers across his blazing bum. It was corrugated and felt like leather. He bent forward to retrieve the trousers at his feet, stretching the flesh across his bottom. It seemed like he had sat in a bathtub of boiling water.
Mr Ponsonby turned in time to see his junior buttoning his fly. The young man’s face was scarlet and his neck was drenched in perspiration.
“Good evening, Mr Spreadbury,” he said and collapsed into the large Chesterfield couch wheezing like a beached whale. Spreadbury stood, uncertain. It took some seconds to understand he had been dismissed. “Thank you sir,”’ he said boldly (as was the etiquette at St. Tom’s) and stiffly he left the office.
Miss Alsop was in the doorway of her room making sure he knew she had heard it all. Spreadbury smiled, tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Have a pleasant evening Miss Alsop,” omitting to add his thought, “you sad old cow!”
Picture credit: Unknown
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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