“Granddad! Granddad!” It was Christine calling from the other room, “Look what I’ve found. It’s you I know it is!”
My heart sank. What now! Why couldn’t she just leave me alone. She hurried into the room clutching a small photograph in her hand. Another piece of treasure, or so she thought. She had taken upon herself to clear out the attic space in my house. Clutter, she called it. All the stuff I had accumulated over a lifetime. Stuff I hadn’t seen in years – decades, maybe – and frankly, had no desire ever to see again.
“Look,” she beamed handing me the picture. “It is you isn’t it.” I took it in an unsteady hand and peered intently. It showed two young men, one formally dressed in a collar and tie seated at an expensive upholstered chair. The other stood over him, dressed in pyjamas. They both were staring at something that was not in the picture but at the other end of the room.
“Is it you? It is!” Why was Christine so damned pleased to have found this picture? I wasn’t. I think it sent a shudder through my body, I can’t be certain because I get all kinds of aches and pains at my age; it could have been anything.
I recognised the setting immediately. It was a rooming house I lived in while at university. Christine was correct, it was me; but the more I stared at the picture the less certain I was which of the two young men I was: they (we) almost looked identical. We might have been brothers; twins even. We had our hair cut in a way that was fashionable among young men of our type at the time; it was smeared away from the forehead with brilliantine. The grease made our hair seem more blond than it actually was. We both had high cheekbones with clear open and healthy-looking faces. We looked (as we were) like a couple who had never had to do a day’s hard work in their lives.
At my age I can’t always remember what I ate for breakfast that morning but my memories from sixty-plus years ago are as clear as a bell. The closer I studied the photograph the clearer my memory became. I was the fellow in the pyjamas. My companion seated on the chair was Harcourt Llewelyn (how could one forget a name like that?). In the photograph we seem to look older than we were; we couldn’t have been quite twenty when it was taken.
“Who is he? Where was it taken?” Christine was full of questions. I shivered again and playing for time since I had no intention of satisfying her infernal curiosity I took the picture and first held it to the sunlight streaming from the nearby french windows then I screwed up my eyes tight and squinted at it. “No idea. Never seen it before,” I said and then to deflect attention I asked, “Where did you find it?”
I knew Christine would give me the most detailed account of the circumstances of her find: which box it was in, where the box had been stored and on and on. She duly obliged and as her piercing, and frankly extremely irritating voice whined on, my thoughts travelled back sixty or so years.
The boarding house was run by a Mrs Greening who had a long-standing relationship with the university. All her “guests” as she insisted on calling the lodgers were students. Perhaps I should explain to any readers who have been students at university at any time in the past forty years or so that these were very different times. We might have been twenty years old but we were certainly not considered adults. The college was for males only and the same of course went for the rooming house. We lived to very strict rules and were required to live lives of the utmost propriety. Chaps who frequented public houses or were known to consort with young ladies of a certain repute soon found themselves “sent down” from the university.
Mrs Greening’s husband Freeman took it upon himself to be our moral compass. He would say that since we were not yet legally adults he would act in loco parentis – which in his mind meant he took the place of our fathers. In the event, since all his guests were former public school men who had spent their formative years at elite boarding schools and away from their homes, he might better have described himself as our housemaster.
Harcourt and I became firm friends and neither of us had much interest in our studies and spent much of our time idling around town. Of course, you can only get away with this for so long. Soon, my tutor hauled me into his study for a wigging. As I recall he was an unworldly kind of a man who would never be interested in the delights of town; not even one so lacking in immorality as Brocklehurst. He cared little about my needs and desires, his only concern was that I should complete my essays and pass through the university without blemishing his own record as a teacher. He was (I think now) also a bit of a coward. Certainly, he disliked any kind of confrontation. I think that is why, rather than deal with my idleness himself, he reported my behaviour to Freeman Greening.
Greening had a high opinion of himself and his place as a leader in God’s university. This was undoubtedly encouraged by the House of the Sacred Light, a church (of sorts) that demanded the utmost obedience to its teachings. He also enjoyed the authority of the university and once my tutor referred my case to him he undoubtedly had carte blanche to deal with the matter as he saw fit.
Should I have been surprised by the course of action he took? Not really. As I have said these were different times, we lived by different standards. As I look at the photograph now I remember that it had once been larger, that is using the technical term it has been “cropped” to edit out other unwanted detail. I don’t remember if other persons have been cut out but I do know that if you follow the eyeline of Harcourt and myself we are looking towards a large glass-fronted mahogany bookcase and shelves. Chief in my memory is the cupboard with double-doors next to that. It was always kept locked and as far as I knew the only key to it resided at all times upon Mr Greening’s person.
It was one evening in March that I discovered what was kept inside. We had dined and the guests were sent to their rooms to study. As I moved away from the table to join them Mrs Greening caught my attention. “Mr Greening wishes to see you,” she said not even trying to hide the pleasure speaking the words gave her, “in the library.” Then she bustled away to give the cook and housemaid a hard time over nothing at all. The library. That was one of the couple’s many pretensions. In other houses it would be a lounge or (at a pinch) a drawing room. The only books in this library were leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare and a dictionary, the only human hands that touched them were the maids’ who dusted them.
Mr Greening stood with his back to the open, roaring fire warming his bottom. As I entered the room he placed his hands behind his back and took a stance that he imagined made him look magisterial. “Come in Hamilton,” he droned. He waggled his head and his jowls wobbled. “Stand there boy.” I had not been warned by my tutor that he would report me but at that moment as I shuffled to the spot on the rug indicated to me I knew my fate.
Mr Greening confirmed it with a short lecture about my behaviour. I nodded in places that I thought appropriate. I had no intention of arguing with him. I was guilty of the crimes he outlined. I knew he had the authority of the university on his side. Mr Greening liked the sound of his own voice and extracted all that he could from my visit. He enjoyed his sense of moral superiority. I determined not to give him additional satisfaction and when the time came for me to speak I apologised. “It won’t happen again,” I added knowing that these were empty words and that Harcourt and I would be on the town the very next day.
Mr Greening grunted, “Won’t happen again.” His flabby, florid face turned a darker shade of red. “We shall most certainly ensure that it won’t happen again.” He shook his head again, his jowls trembled and his many chins wobbled. Then, unsteadily on his feet, he shambled across the room. He paused and extracting every last ounce of performance from the occasion he thrust his hand in his pocket and I saw his fist clenching and quivering. At last he found a small key on a ring and with a trembling hand he made several attempts before finally getting it into the lock. He hesitated (I believe for dramatic effect) before swinging the door open. He stood to one side ensuring that I could get an uninterrupted view of the cupboard’s contents.
Had I been thirteen years old and new to the rigours of an English public school education I might have gasped with horror at the sight. My heart might pound with fear. Tears might flood from my eyes. Had I been thirteen that might have happened. However, I was probably twenty years old at this time; I felt I had seen it all before. In fact, Mr Greening proved to me that I hadn’t. Even at St. Tom’s where the infliction of corporal punishment was a daily routine no master had a collection of implements quite like Mr Greening. There were several straps of differing lengths, widths and thicknesses. A taws with two fingers worn with age and use hung from a hook alongside a couple of wooden paddles. A white plimsoll lay on a shelf. But, what impressed me most was the impressive range of whippy canes; many undoubtedly made of rattan, but some (even from a distance) I discerned were the denser Malacca kind.
Mr Greening wheezed heavily when he leaned into the cupboard to inspect his toys more closely. Did saliva drip from his chin as he took up one cane after another and tested it lovingly between his hands? Surely there was no reason to do this; he would have been very well acquainted with the properties of every instrument in that cupboard. He was a connoisseur, of that I could have no doubt.
At last he decided on a traditional school-type cane. It was a little longer and maybe thicker, but with the typical crook handle, than the one my housemaster used on me as he drove me in my studies. Sweat moistened his forehead and his complexion was now puce as he turned to face me with the thing in his hand. He swiped it through the air and it travelled with menace. It would without doubt deliver a tremendous flogging. I stood my heart pounding (you have no control of it in such circumstances) but outwardly I was calm. Mr Greening would have his way with me. There was nothing I could do, not if I wished to stay at the university. Even though I cared little for my studies I knew my father expected me to come down with a degree. He already had a career lined up for me. I would not let him down.
Mr Greening wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand. The open fire roared but the room was always draughty and it wasn’t that warm. I saw him lick his lips and then he coughed to clear his throat. “Please bare your backside and put yourself across the back of that chair.”
So it was to be bare-arsed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not with Mr Greening and his moral posturing. I should expect nothing less. I was (I am) an old St. Tom’s man and if there was anything I learned at school it was to take your punishment. No fuss. You get caught, the master jaws you for a bit, he orders you to bend over, over you go, he beats you, you stand up, you shake hands, you leave and the world carries on as before.
I had learned well. Students in those days dressed as Harcourt had in the photograph, we could have been young businessmen. I lowered my flannels and as I sported fashionable woollen drawers (rather than the one-piece combinations our fathers wore) I was able to bare my buttocks with ease. The chair he indicated was the very one in the photograph and its back was a very good height for a young man of my size to bend across. I took hold of my neck tie and hooked it over my shoulder before diving over. Once back at school I had almost choked myself when my tie caught between my body and the chair in such a position.
The chair was constructed mainly of soft cushions and my weight sank into them. Without awaiting instructions from Mr Greening I pushed my head low, parted my feet and raised my bottom high. This way I ensured he had a terrific target to aim at. The floorboards creaked when Mr Greening positioned himself behind me. I felt his hot breath against my naked buttocks as he leant in to take hold of my shirt tail and drag it halfway up my back and out of the way. Once that was done he gently laid the cane just below the centre of my bum where the cheeks fold into the thighs. His wheezing reached a crescendo when he sawed the rod across my bum.
The sound of the crack of cane against my taut flesh resounded off the walls. At first I felt nothing and then excruciating agony. My head rose with the shock and I had to grip hard the soft cushion to stop myself leaping from the chair and dancing across the floor. I had been caned before many (many) times but nothing had prepared me for Mr Greening’s cruelty.
He cracked the cane down so hard I thought my backside would come off. He made true the ancient schoolboy saying, “He took my arse off.” He was intense.
A second lash quickly followed and although it was stinging it was just about bearable. The third stroke changed that and it was like he had forced me sit on the open fire. The next three were the most excruciating strokes I had ever felt. I was contorting about like a cat on heat, gasping for breath as the inferno built up.
He gave me a dozen in all. The last five just had me bouncing around, screaming in pain. Tears were pouring down my face. I felt as if I was being cut to ribbons. The cane had caught me on my thigh and one had come close to catching my balls. At last I was allowed to get up. My hands flew round and I went into a panic as I felt my backside was full of crisscross welts. The flogging had hurt more than I could have imagined. My bum was raw and painful and the fire was raging fiercely.
I hopped around, stomped my feet like a soldier on sentry duty, my body doubled like a hairgrip. I couldn’t get my breath. I wanted to vomit, I hawked but nothing came up. Mr Greening smiled thinly, he was having breathing problems of his own.
I cannot remember exactly what happened next, but moments later I was back in my room. I do remember that. Had Harcourt carried me up from the library? I was face down on the bed, my trousers and underwear nowhere to be seen. Harcourt treated my wounds. I remember much blood on his silk handkerchief. And then? Which of us instigated it? Had I made the first move? Surely I was too exhausted so it would have been Harcourt. Our bodies entwined, tongues flailed.
“Granddad!” it was Christine again. “Are you even listening to me,” she chided affectionately. “Tell me, who is it in the picture with you?”
“Sorry love,” I sighed, “I really can’t remember. How about making a nice cup of tea?”
Picture credit: A Weber Brams
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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