Mr Cartwright gently replaced the handset into the cradle and sat silently staring at the telephone on his desk. He had every right to be furious; nobody in their right mind would complain if he were spitting mad. Who could blame him? But, rather than anger he felt deep sense of serenity. He was calm, but calculating. The phone call had come as a total surprise, but even now only seconds after hearing the news he was entirely certain of his course of action.
He glanced at the clock, there was another hour before he could knock off work for the day. He had to take his mind off the shock and get on with business. The time went quickly; Mr Cartwright had always been good at separating one part of his life from another. There would be time enough later in the evening to get to grips with his crisis at home.
At five-thirty, he shuffled his papers together and slipped them inside a manila folder. He took this to the filing cabinet that stood in the corner by the window. He slipped it inside and then taking a small key from his waistcoat pocket he locked it securely. Now, all he needed to do was collect his jacket from the hook on the back of the door and leave.
He made his farewells to the small number of co-workers who hadn’t themselves left for home. As he walked towards the stairwell he began to piece together in his mind his course of action from here on in. He would stop off at Orwell’s bazaar in the High Street before he caught his bus back home to The Avenue. He needed to make a purchase.
It was summer and although hardly scorching weather, it was very warm. Mr Cartwright felt sticky patches forming at his armpits. He was a very proper gentleman and it would never do for him to take off his jacket and hold it causally across his shoulder as he walked down the street. He would perspire gently. It was unpleasant, but nothing more.
He knew Orwell’s did not close until six so he saw no reason to hurry. The street was busy with people decamping their offices and making towards bus stops and the train station. He noticed a steady stream of customers making their way to The Three Fishers, for a “quick one” before heading (Mr Cartwright assumed) to their lonely bedsitting rooms.
Orwell’s was one of those shops that sold everything as long as it didn’t cost more than a few pennies. Mr Cartwright was not a frequent visitor but on a previous visit he had noticed the very implement he needed to purchase this evening. The shop was nearly deserted of customers. As he entered he saw two young shop assistants take notice of his arrival. He stood inside the door and scanned the vista of the shop. If his memory served him well, what he wanted was at the far end of the shop, displayed discreetly in a corner.
Without acknowledging the shop assistants Mr Cartwright took a leisurely stroll through the shop. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one assistant, a young man, no older than his own sons he supposed, leave his position behind the toiletries counter and slowly move towards him. The assistant halted a short distance from him.
Although Mr Cartwright did not shop regularly at Orwell’s he was very well aware of the practice of shop assistants. The young man, Mr Cartwright observed wore a black woollen blazer and pale-grey trousers, making him look not unlike a senior boy at a grammar school. Mr Cartwright expected the young man to wait a moment before pouncing upon him to encourage a sale.
Undeterred, Mr Cartwright stopped in front of a display. He failed to hide his sense of disappointment. This was not what he was after, not quite. No, he needed something more substantial. “Oh, bother,” he breathed.
“May I help you, sir?” Mr Cartwright turned his head slightly to acknowledge the sales assistant. He saw from a badge on lapel of the boy’s jacket he was called Aitkens.
“Well, yes, rather,” Mr Cartwright spoke clearly and confidently. He was a manager at a very important business in town. Aitkens was a junior shop assistant. They both knew their place in the social hierarchy of Brocklehurst.
“Yes,” Mr Cartwright continued. “This display of canes,” he nodded towards two large urns stuffed full of thin rods, each with a plastic handle attached, “I need something a little more substantial.” He eyed Aitkens closely, noticing for the first time the boy’s pock marked face and watery grey eyes. Aitkens smiled, revealing rotten, broken teeth that were so prevalent among the poor.
“Yes, sir,” Aitkens said, quietly, to ensure Mr Cartwright of his total discretion. “What exactly did you have in mind, sir?”
“I have to deal with two older boys,” Mr Cartwright said without embarrassment. “A pair of about your age.”
Aitkens suppressed a shudder. He was no stranger to the sting of the cane. It gave him no pleasure to be party to another boy’s punishment. “We have a further collection towards the back of the shop, if sir would care to follow me.” He led the way and continued talking as he went, “We have canes for use on senior boys, they are similar to the ones in use at the grammar school,” he sucked on his bottom lip as a not-too distant memory occurred to him. “We also have dense, Malacca-type canes such as are used in borstal institutions and such like.”
They had reached the back of the shop by this time. A tarpaulin hid a small mound. In one smooth movement Aitkens removed the canvas. Mr Cartwrights face brightened. Before him were about thirty assorted punishment canes. Each was about three feet or more long and they were of various diameters; many were thicker than the pencils he used at his office. Their curved handles gave them an awesome aspect. Any one of these monsters would pack a terrific punch.
“Would sir care to handle one?” Aitkens was moving in for his sale. Mr Cartwright sucked in a deep gasp of air. The shop was hot and stuffy and suddenly he found his own body temperature was rising fast. He took hold of a rod at random and bent it between his hands, as a school headmaster would by tradition do. It flexed easily. Mt Cartwright nodded approval and then replaced it among the others. He took out a denser stick of deep yellow and swished it through the air. Aitkens had to take evasive action to avoid receiving a swipe across his shoulder.
“A very fine choice, if I might say so sir,” Aitkens drivelled. It was one of the store’s best sellers. Quite who needed such a cane and what they did with it in the privacy of their own home, Aitkens felt, was none of his business. He watched Mr Cartwright intensely as he took one cane after another from the stock and tested them by flexing and swishing. Aitkens hoped Mr Cartwright would not be like the gentlemen who came in yesterday and asked if he might test it out on Aitkens’ own backside.
“I’ll take this one, and this one,” Mr Cartwright was a man of action. He knew how to make a decision. He handed his purchases to the shop assistant and watched the boy as he disappeared from view into an outer office. He returned a minute or so later carrying a long thing parcel wrapped with brown paper. Mr Cartwright nodded but did not speak his appreciation. He could carry the parcel home on the bus and no one would suspect its contents. He paid half a crown and thinking it was money well spent he bade Aitkens a good evening.
Mr Cartwright spent some of the bus journey recalling the telephone call he had received earlier at the office. It had been his neighbour from across the road at The Avenue. He had seen Cartwright’s two sons, Alan and David lounging around the garden at home in the middle of the afternoon. Clearly, they had truanted. David from the college where he was supposed to be learning book-keeping and Alan, from the sixth form at St Francis Independent Grammar School.
This wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t even the second. Mt Cartwright had chided the two boys previously for not attending classes. He had expressed his thoughts clearly, they could be in no doubts. It must not happen again, he had said. Or else. He had left the details of the consequences of further misbehaviour unstated. But, they were aged eighteen and twenty, they knew their father’s preferred method of punishment.
Mr Cartwright alighted from the bus and made his way down The Avenue. The street was silent. Most of the houses stood in their own grounds hidden behind walls or hedges. People liked their privacy here. It was a wonder how Mr Flynn, his neighbour, had managed to spot his sons in their own garden. Mr Cartwright preferred not to dwell on that.
As he approached the house the sound of “pop” music blared out of an open upstairs window. It was David’s bedroom; there was no doubt that at least one of his sons was at home. He tucked his parcel under his arm. Being long and thin, it was an awkward size to carry. It was as light as a feather and to the unobservant eye it might have simply been a twist of brown paper. He balanced the parcel awkwardly as he found his door key and let himself into the house.
“Turn that rubbish off!” he yelled from the foot of the stairs. The din continued unabated. He put the parcel down and slipped his jacket from his shoulders, noticing with some distaste the sticky, damp patches under his arms. As Mr Cartwright hung his jacket up his younger son Alan emerged from the kitchen. “Go upstairs and tell your brother to turn that row off. Then stay there both of you until I come up.”
Alan’s face paled. His mouth opened but swiftly closed again; he had decided not to ask, “Why?”
“Do it now,” Mr Cartwright ordered sternly and he watched Alan’s large backside wobble as his son hurried up the stairs. “Those jeans look rather thick,” he thought idly as the boy pushed his way into his brother’s bedroom. Moments later the music was silenced.
Mr Cartwright shuffled to the kitchen. The kettle on the stove was still warm and it quickly boiled once he set a match to the gas. He poured the water into a mug over instant coffee granules, then milk straight from the bottle, and sat and waited until it was cool enough to drink. It would give Alan and David time to contemplate their fate. He sipped the hot coffee tentatively; the pair had been caught red-handed so there would be point in denials.
He opened a drawer, found a sharp knife and used it to break open his parcel. He folded the paper tidily and pushed it into the bin. He laid the two canes on the kitchen table and studied them as he drank his coffee.
Aitkens had been correct to say these canes were suitable for older boys; borstal boys even. One of the canes was thick and dense, its handle hardly curved. He picked it up and ran his fingers along its length, feeling the rough notches that appeared every eight inches or so. Without testing the cane’s companion, Mr Cartwright decided this would be his weapon of choice. He drained his coffee mug, put it in the sink and then ran cold water over it. He left it on the draining board, picked up the cane and slowly made his way from the room.
He made stately progress up the stairs and paused on the landing. It was his house and he had every right to enter any room his chose uninvited. Even so, he rapped his knuckles three times on the door, paused a couple of seconds, and then pushed it open. He was greeted by two disconsolate young men. David, his older son, now aged twenty, had golden hair down to his shoulders in the modern style of the young. He could not meet his father’s eye and stared down at the floor. Alan, eighteen, was still at school and his appearance was not yet that of a down-and-out. He too looked sheepish as his father entered.
Mr Cartwright had prepared a few words. He spoke them without interruption. He talked about the phone call he had received (but did not think it appropriate to reveal the caller’s name). He reminded his sons of their past truanting. He completed his speech this way, “Now, I am going to beat each of you quite severely.”
Alan and David exchanged glances. Mr Cartwright read the looks. They had discussed between them the possibility of this outcome. They could not complain. They had to take their punishment. Mr Cartwright admired his sons for this. They would accept the consequences of their actions. It was very admirable, he thought.
He flexed the cane between his hands. He nodded to David, “Put the chair in the middle of the room.” It was a large room as befitting the splendid (and expensive) houses in The Avenue. David brushed his long blond hair from his eyes and without a murmur of dissent he picked up the low-backed vanity chair and moved it into position.
“You,” Mr Cartwright spoke to David, “Stand by the wall.” David, still unable to face his father moved with head bowed.
“You,” he swished the cane through empty air. It made a terrific whooshing sound as it flew, “Bend over the chair.” David was tall and the chair low and there was a clearance of a foot or more between it and his stomach. “Head low. Bottom high. Spread your legs.”
David did all of these things, offering his father if not the perfect target for his cane at least one that would get the job done. Mr Cartwright watched impassively as his son manoeuvred himself. He tapped his cane across the centre of David’s meaty bum. He had been quite an athlete while at school and still retained sporty muscles. His blue denim jeans stretched across his cheeks. Mr Cartwright took hold of the waistband and tugged hard. He was rewarded with the sight of the outline of David’s underpants underneath the denim. He tapped the cane once, then twice and then for good measure a third time. He brought it crashing down with tremendous force and was delighted to watch a thick line emboss itself across the seat of David’s jeans. The crack the cane made upon contact echoed around the room. A bird outside the open window took flight in fright.
David made little response. His face was completely covered by his long blond hair and any expression he had was obscured from view. Mr Cartwright sent a second swipe across David’s bottom. It struck a little lower than the first. David’s feet slipped a bit at the impact and a line of fire blazed across the lower part of his cheeks. His younger brother Alan shuddered and tears began to form in his own eyes as he witnessed his brother’s punishment. It was not concern for David’s wellbeing that concerned him, rather the knowledge that in a few moments he too would be prostrate across the chair with his bum on fire.
The cane rose and fell. Twelve times in total. As he rose to take his place against the wall he could not resist rubbing his sore backside vigorously. He hated letting his father know he had hurt him. It was the typical pride of any boy forced to present himself for a beating.
Alan took his brother’s place. He was no stranger to the sting of the cane. St Francis Independent Grammar was a traditional school: traditional curriculum, traditional uniform, traditional games and, of course, traditional discipline. He spread his legs wide, stared down at the seat of the chair and prepared himself for the first of his twelve strokes.
Mr Cartwright laid them on with vim. Each stroke was a swipe. Sweat poured from his forehead. The back of his shirt was soaked. He watched carefully as Alan rose from the chair. As his brother had done moment earlier, he ruefully rubbed his buttocks. He was sore, but it wasn’t as bad as the caning he would inevitably get from his housemaster for truanting when he returned to school after the weekend.
“Pah!” Mr Cartwright surveyed his two sons. “Do you know what?” he asked, not expecting an answer and not anyway allowing time for one. “Those jeans are too thick. I don’t think you felt a thing. David,” he swiped the cane through the I and touched its tip on the seat of the chair. “Take down those jeans and let’s go again.”
Picture credit: C of Sweden
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second