Walter’s eyes shone with excitement as he bent forward to pick the letter off the doormat. The BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation. He had replied. He had written back. He slipped the letter into the inside pocket of his blazer and ran up the stairs back to his bedroom. He hadn’t told his parents about this. It was his secret. For now.
His hand trembled and his heart raced as he pulled open the drawer where his socks and underwear were. Hidden at the back was his penknife. At the third attempt he had the blade open. Carefully he slid it under the flap of the envelope. There was a single sheet of paper inside. He grasped it between finger and thumb. He held it carefully and paused. What did he say? What would happen next? He was too nervous to find out.
In the distance a civic clock struck the quarter hour. If he didn’t get a move on he would be late for school. He unfolded the paper. It was a letter. Handwritten. He had replied in person. This was no standard letter typed by a secretary. He checked the bottom of the page. The proof was there. The signature of Prosper Howard. Walter sat on his bed and unable to control his beating heart he read carefully.
Dear Master Harding, it said. I was astounded to receive your letter requesting an interview for your school magazine. The blasted impertinence. I resolved at once to write to your headmaster and demand that he administer corporal punishment upon you in the form of a severe caning.
Walter stopped reading. Crikey! He had told nobody he had written to Prosper Howard the most famous broadcasting personality in the country. His radio show What Do You Know? was listened to by millions each week. Everyone with a TV set tuned into his panel game Guess What I Am on Sunday evenings. Prosper Howard was always in the newspapers attending one swell party after another. He wrote a column in a Sunday newspaper. He was well known as a miserable curmudgeon. And, the nation loved him for it.
Walter realised he must have been mad to write to him. There would be hell to pay now. The headmaster was certain to be furious. Writing without his permission. It would be a beating for sure.
There was still more in the letter. Walter read on. However, on further reflection I considered it might be a bit of a lark to meet you. Walter paused his reading. A bit of a lark, what the dickens did that mean? He would soon find out. The letter continued, As you may know I keep a house in Brocklehurst not far from your school. You are to report to me at 57 The Avenue at 5.00 p.m. on May 23rd 1956. Do not be late.
Walter read the letter again and then for a third time. Prosper Howard had granted him the interview. What a scoop! Carefully, he put the letter back into the envelope and put the envelope with the penknife at the back of the drawer. It was an elated Walter Harding who cycled to St. Francis Independent Grammar School that morning.
To get to The Avenue Walter had to cycle through Widdicombe Woods. He knew them well. There were many dark and secret places there. On this occasion he kept to the main paths. It was a cool spring evening, the light was fading but it would not be completely dark for some time yet. The Avenue was a long street consisting of many large upscale houses, each standing hidden behind walls or hedges. There were also smaller but no less opulent homes nestling side by side disconnected by garages or open spaces. He felt sure number fifty-seven would be one of the larger more secluded places. And it was so. Walter would have missed it altogether if he had not found number fifty-one and then fifty-three until by the logic of omission, he concluded the closed gate with no number upon it must be the home of Prosper Howard.
The gate was closed but not locked. Walter dismounted his bicycle and with some difficulty he eased open the heavy wrought iron gates. He stood for a moment to catch his breath. The house was modern. The number of windows he could count suggested to Walter there were at least six large rooms at the front. He had no ide how many there would be at the back. It was enormous. He had read Prosper Howard was a bachelor. Why did he need such a large house? Walter wondered.
He pushed his bicycle along the tarmacked drive that ran through manicured lawns up to the front door. His heart was beating with excitement. And nerves. Nervous excitement. He pressed the electric bell and waited. Moments later the door opened. Walter’s jaw opened. Standing before him as large as life was Prosper Howard. A slender, somewhat dapper man with a severely clipped moustache. Walter had expected a butler, or at the very least a maid, to answer the door. Walter supposed Mr Howard had recently returned from a professional engagement as he wore an expensively-tailored dark-grey business suit.
“Ha!” Prosper Howard snorted in the rich, plumy tones so beloved by his broadcasting audiences. “On time I see!” He pulled open the door to allow Walter through. “Follow me, lad! Follow me!” Walter let his bicycle fall to the ground and entered the house. He had little time to notice the large spiral staircase, the dark wooden furniture and the general gloomy aspect of the house. Prosper Howard was already entering a room at the far end of the hallway. Walter skipped to catch up the great man.
Prosper Howard sat in a large leather armchair. Walter’s eyes examined the rest of the room. It was some kind of living room, he supposed. Did people who lived in such large houses call them living rooms? Perhaps it was a drawing room, what did he know. There was a large Chesterfield couch and several smaller armless chairs and a coffee table. At the far end of the room stood a set of dark mahogany bookcases and cupboards. Walter stood uncomfortably. He had not been invited to sit. Would Prosper Howard think him impertinent if he pulled up a chair?
Prosper Howard wriggled his bottom as he made himself comfortable in a chair. He picked up a pipe from a nearby table and with what looked like a gold cigarette lighter he reignited the tobacco in the bowl. Walter saw the craggy lines that criss-crossed Prosper Howard’s face. He hadn’t noticed them when he watched him on television. Prosper Howard leaned forward towards Walter, the boy caught a faint aroma of whisky and tobacco, mingled with coal tar soap.
“So,” Prosper Howard said with sonorous tones, “You’re in the sixth-form, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” Walter replied, “I turned eighteen last Tuesday.”
“Eighteen eh,” Prosper Howard’s already rheumy eyes moistened further, “What a splendid age to be. So young. So virile.” Walter blushed unable to think of a suitable response.
“What a fine school uniform,” Prosper Howard reached out and took the lapel of Walter’s blazer between finger and thumb. I see many of you boys around the town. These colourful blazers are very distinctive. Why aren’t you wearing your cap?”
Walter spluttered, “Oh, erm, it’s in my pocket.”
“Put it on lad! Put it on,” Prosper Howard blared. “That’s better. Yes, you look very smart. A picture.” Prosper Howard let go of Walter’s lapel and slumped back in his chair, “Of course, it would be so much better if you wore short trousers.”
“Oh, the chaps only wear those in the first form,” Walter spluttered, trying to make sensible conversation.
“Pity. Pity.” Prosper Howard puffed on his pipe. He glanced at an empty glass on the table, paused as if trying to make a decision, and then said, more quietly this time, “Eighteen. What-ho! Let’s have a drink.” He hauled himself from the chair and moved swiftly crossed the room. One of the cupboard doors hid a cocktail cabinet. In seconds Prosper Howard returned to his chair grasping two tumblers of whisky. He thrust one into Walter’s hand. The boy received it gratefully. Prosper Howard was treating him like a grown-up. Like an equal.
Walter sipped the whisky. He had no experience of drinking beyond the cheap cider they took into Widdicombe Woods. It burnt his throat. He struggled to suppress a cough. Now, a little self-conscious that he was still standing, Walter transferred his weight from one leg to the other.
“Of course, I was a schoolmaster once,” Prosper Howard said unexpectedly. “Long time ago, of course. Police constable for a while too.” He fell into silence. Walter looked deep into his glass before taking another sip. This one went down a little easier.
“Discipline.” Prosper Howard was off again. “I suppose it’s about discipline. School-mastering and coppering. Both the same really, I suppose.” Walter suddenly remembered an article Prosper Howard had recently penned for the newspaper: ‘Bring back the birch for juvenile delinquents.’ It had cause quite a stir. Questions had been asked in the House of Lords.
Prosper Howard took a long, hard gulp of whisky. “What about you lad?” he waved his glass at Walter. “Do you behave yourself?”
Walter knew his face must be burning. What was Prosper Howard talking about? “Yes, sir,” Walter stumbled uncertain what he was supposed to say.
“Really? Truly? You are a paragon of virtue? Always?”
Walter sipped more whisky. Did Prosper Howard know about the filthy things he did under the bedclothes at night? Did he know about Widdicombe Woods? What he did with David McCormack. No, of course not. How could he? He took another sip.
“Drink up lad! Drink up,” Prosper Howard beamed, “We have work to do.” Walter sipped hard at his whisky. It was a warm evening and the room was airless. His head was feeling stuffy. He felt his knees buckle. How he wished Mr Howard would ask him to sit down.
He didn’t. Instead, he said rather cheerily. “Come on lad. We should go to my study. Follow me.” Prosper Howard bounded to his feet. “Come along. Come along!” he called as he made his way through the door. The study was on the first floor. The passageway was gloomy and Walter slipped on the over-polished floorboards as he tried to keep up with his host. “Upstairs! Upstairs!” Prosper Howard had boundless energy, he reminded Walter of an over zealous scoutmaster. Walter stumbled on the stairs but gripped the ornately carved bannister before he fell on his face.
“In here lad. In here!” Prosper Howard was holding open a heavy oak panelled door. “The study,” he beamed as he held the door open wide. “Get inside,” he added, as a more sinister tone entered his voice. “Quickly boy. Don’t dawdle!” Walter hurried to catch up.
The study if anything was larger than the living room. And every bit as gloomy. All four walls were panelled with heavy mahogany. There was little furniture for a room so large, but it too was mostly made of dark wood. Along one wall there were rows of bookshelves encased behind glass. A large heavy desk topped in green leather stood at one end. Opposite it across the room were two small leather armchairs with low backs. A straight backed chair leaned against a wall. An unlit fire dominated one wall.
“Stand there boy.” Prosper Howard spoke gruffly, his previously pleasant demeanour now vanished. Walter’s head was aching. How he wished he hadn’t tried to look grown-up. He should have left the whisky alone. A bottle of fizzy Tizer was more to his liking.
“Now boy,” Prosper Howard paced the study, his hands behind his back. “This is what we shall do,” his spoke ominously. He paused while he carefully unbuttoned his jacket and slid it off his shoulders. He lay it down carefully on the large shiny desk. He turned to face Walter. “I will not countenance impertinence. Especially, not in one so young.”
Walter’s face darkened with puzzlement. What did Mr Howard mean? Impertinence. “How dare you write such a letter to me. To think that you might question me. Impudence. That’s what it is sheer impudence.”
He strode across the room, his heavy shoes echoing against the bare floorboards. “I won’t stand for it.”
Walter’s eyes widened. His mouth opened. Only now did he see the small umbrella stand tucked away in one corner of the room. It contained no umbrellas. It almost certainly never had. Walter gaped as Mr Howard leaned forward and took up a long, thin punishment cane. He had several to choose from, of varying lengths and thicknesses. Prosper Howard flexed the cane between his hands. “You will be familiar with one of these, of course.” He swished the curve-handled cane through the air. “I have heard many favourable reports about your school.” He bent the cane between his hands until it formed a perfect arc. “Very traditional, I hear. Traditional curriculum. Traditional uniform. Traditional sports,” he swiped the cane through the air once more. “And most of all, traditional discipline.”
Prosper Howard grimaced. All colour had drained from Walter’s face. He hopped uncomfortably from one foot to the other in confusion. What did Prosper Howard intend to do? If Walter’s head had not been so befuddled with whisky he would have had no need to ask such a question.
Prosper Howard tucked the cane under his arm. He towered over the perplexed schoolboy. “Now lad,” Prosper Howard intoned. “This is what’s going to happen. You are going to submit to a thrashing.” The voice seemed far away. Walter shook his head trying vainly to clear his brain. It could hardly hear Prosper Howard speak.
“When I give the instruction, you are to take off your blazer and hang it on that hook on the door. Then you are to stand behind that chair.” He slipped the cane from his arm into his hand and pointed to one of the small leather armchairs. “Then, when I so order, you are to lower your trousers.” He paused to allow the enormity of this to sink in before continuing, “And then lower your underpants.” Prosper Howard peered intently at the eighteen-year-old schoolboy standing before him. He could detect no reaction. “Dumb insolence,” he thundered inwardly. “We shall see about that!”
He swiped the cane through the air to emphasise the importance of his next words. “When I give the instruction, you are to bend over the back of that chair. All the way. You will place your head low into the cushion and raise your bottom high. You will grip the front of the chair.”
Prosper Howard’s voice croaked. He coughed to clear his air passage before continuing. “You will spread your legs. You will hold that position. I shall thrash your bared buttocks. It will be extremely painful. You are permitted to shout and holler. But, you must not move out of position. If there is any attempt to obstruct punishment, either by moving about, or God Forbid, standing. I shall start the punishment again.”
Walter remined emotionless. “Bah!” Prosper Howard said aloud. “You will count each stroke and then ask me for more.” He demonstrated, “One sir; thank you sir. Please may I have another. Two sir, thank you sir. And so on.” He cleared his throat once more and gripped the cane in his hand tightly. “You will continue this until I have deemed that you have been punished sufficiently. I cannot say at this stage how many strokes I shall administer. That entirely depends on your demeanour. I shall finish when I am satisfied of your contrition.”
Still Walter gave no sign of outward emotion. His brain had registered Prosper Howard’s words, but it could not figure them. Prosper Howard, Walter’s hero, intended to thrash him. On the bare bum. There and then. Walter’s head was light, the whisky and the heat of the room made him dizzy. His heart beat faster and faster. His breath came in short pants. Fear mingled with excitement. Where did the excitement end and the fear begin?
He watched Prosper Howard step towards the armchair, cane at the ready. The door and escape was behind Walter. Within seconds he could be out of the house and running down The Avenue to safety. Walter knew he, and not Prosper Howard, was in control. Prosper Howard could not – would not – force him to submit. What happened next was entirely in Walter’s hands. His knees buckled, the room span, somewhere a long way away he heard a bird singing. Sweat ran down his back.
Prosper Howard cleared his throat, “Hang your blazer on the hook behind the door.”
Walter’s temples throbbed. What should he do? This was his last chance to escape.
Picture credit: Unknown.
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second