Mr Percival Audrey the headmaster sipped thoughtfully on his tea and nibbled at a Rich Tea biscuit. A small story in the local newspaper had caught his attention.
Anthony Hastings, aged 27, had joined a firm of solicitors in Brocklehurst. He was returning to his home town.
Hastings had been a pupil at St Francis. He had left nine years before and gone on to university.
Headmasters and elephants never forget. Audrey had some unfinished business with Hastings.
“Mrs Green,” he called out to his secretary in the next room. She bustled into the study, eager as always to please. He showed her the newspaper.
“Please make an appointment for Anthony Hastings to report to my study.”
Anthony Hastings had hardly given St Francis Independent Grammar School a second thought from the day he had left. Why should he? He had studied at a university at the other end of the country and started a new life. His parents had retired and moved to France and he had never expected to see Brocklehurst again. Now a qualified solicitor, he had been offered a tremendous job at Lloyd, Lloyd and Straightmeister, so here he was back in town.
He walked through the main gate. Across the quadrangle was the entrance to the building. The headmaster’s study was above that. From this vantage point the “beak” as he was known to generations of boys could survey his school.
People who knew Anthony at school would have called him a rather timid child. He studied hard and was a member of both the chess and the stamp collecting clubs. He behaved himself and was never in trouble.
This was the first time he had been summoned to the headmaster’s study. He was twenty-seven years old, a successful professional man, but the call from Audrey had not felt like an “invitation:” it was a “summons.”
“Please arrive at five o’clock,” Mrs Green had instructed. “The school will be finished for the day and Mr Audrey will be able to deal with you then.”
She had actually said, “Deal with you.” That puzzled Anthony. It was probably a slip of the tongue. She had meant to say, “Meet with you.”
He had been so flummoxed by the unexpected call he had forgotten to ask the purpose of the meeting.
He would soon find out.
Anthony was not surprised that he felt no emotion as he walked through the school quadrangle and into the building. He had been reasonably happy at the school, but he had moved on with his life. Unlike some of his fellow pupils a revisit to the school did not ignite painful memories of visits to the headmaster’s study. In fact, Anthony supposed he had never once had cause to visit the headmaster during his whole school career.
The school seemed deserted. Certainly, Mrs Green had departed for the day. So Anthony tapped lightly on the door marked “Headmaster” and waited for the call from within.
Anthony opened the door. Mr Audrey was sat at his desk, framed by the mullioned window. He wore a flowing academic gown over a light grey business suit. On his head sat a mortar-board. The headmaster scowled at the sight of the young solicitor.
Anthony stood at the doorway, unsure how to proceed. Usually at the start of meetings the host would offer some form of greeting. Not so Mr Audrey. He sat steely-eyed.
Anthony took the initiative. He walked further into the room and sat down on the straight-backed chair in front of the desk that was clearly intended for guests.
“How dare you! You insolent boy!” Mr Audrey’ complexion turned purple as blood vessels across his face bulged.
“Stand up This instance!”
Anthony shot to his feet, his own face blushing bright red.
“Stand there boy!” Audrey pointed to a spot ahead of him. Like all headmasters he was suffused with self-importance.
Anthony shuffled his feet. His hands were trembling so he clasped them behind his back.
“You know why I have sent for you!” It was meant to be a question, but in the headmaster’s pomposity it sounded like a statement.
Anthony truly did not know why; but he was so intimidated by Audrey, he could not reply.
The headmaster mistook this as further insolence.
“The tuck shop. Embezzlement.” He roared. “You are nothing but a thief!”
The tuck shop. Anthony gaped. He had genuinely forgotten. He hadn’t thought about the school in years.
“You thought you had escaped detection!” Again a question was delivered as a statement.
Ten years ago Anthony had been considered such a responsible young man he had been put in charge of the school’s tuck shop. It was his job to collect the money and keep accounts.
“Two pounds, three shillings and six pence!” The headmaster roared. He seemed incapable of speaking in a normal tone.
“You stole it. All of it!” The headmaster’s fury knew know bounds.
It was true. Anthony had stolen the money. He took small amounts, now and again. It wasn’t a planned embezzlement. It just happened. He did it once. He found he got away with it, so he did it again. And again.
He hadn’t counted but twelve pounds and change seemed about the right amount. He hadn’t needed the money. He came from a wealthy family. There wasn’t a starving widowed mother at home. He wanted the money, so he took it. He bought football magazines and other teenager things.
“Did you think we wouldn’t find out?” That time it was a clear question. It required an answer. But Anthony’s body was in turmoil. His heartbeat raced and his breathing was heavy. He couldn’t get his eyelids to stop blinking. Only by holding his hands together behind his back could he stop them from shaking.
Mr Audrey rose from behind his desk to confront the young solicitor head on. The headmaster was a tall angular man. His hair stuck out wildly from beneath his mortar-board cap. His lined face was partially obscured by a greying moustache and thick bushy side whiskers. Spectacles balanced precariously half way down his nose.
“And, now!” he roared, his face inches from Anthony’s. “You return to this town as a respectable solicitor.”
“My God!” Anthony thought as the dire consequences of his adolescent action sank home. He was a thief. If this knowledge became public his career would be over.
Mr Audrey paced the length of his study. “You realise boy that I could inform the police. Or your employers. Or the local newspaper, even …” He left the sentence half finished; silenced by the look of sheer horror on the face of the young man standing before him.
Anthony mouthed silently, “Please, don’t …”His vocal chords had deserted him.
“Pah!” Mr Audrey might be a pompous headmaster, but he was neither cruel nor vindictive. He had a solution.
“The crime was committed while you were a pupil at this school,” he intoned. “I can deal with it as if you were still a pupil.”
Anthony made no response, he was only half listening, his critical faculties dulled by the seriousness of his situation.
“Until this regrettable incident, you were an exemplary pupil. You deserve a second chance. But you must be punished.”
Anthony’s pitiful look spurred the headmaster on.
“Punished severely. Do you accept that?”
“Punished?” Anthony whispered. He had regained some control of his voice. “How?”
“Twelve strokes of the cane,” the headmaster responded briskly. “Trousers lowered.”
“Twelve …” Anthony mouthed the word silently. His head was whirling. His legal mind was working hard. Twelve strokes. Trousers down. Was that even legal? Weren’t there regulations?
“It is entirely up to you, Hastings,” the headmaster paced the room. “It is entirely your choice.”
Choice? What choice? Anthony had no choice. It had to be the beating. Much later that day at his rented flat as he rubbed antiseptic ointment into his wounds, the young solicitor realised for the first time what a generous offer the headmaster had made.
Anthony was guilty as charged. He was a recidivist; he had stolen many times during his final year at school. He deserved to be punished. Anthony always thought of himself as an honourable man: and an honest one. His thieving had been a youthful indiscretion. It was the lapse of judgement of an eighteen-year-old boy.
Undoubtedly, if he had been discovered at the time he would have been thrashed severely by the headmaster. He would have deserved it too. He would have been given the chance to atone for his sin. His bottom would have been blistered and his slate wiped clean.
Now, nine years after the event, the headmaster had offered him the same chance. Take a punishment, apologise and move on.
“Well, boy! Is it to be the cane?” It was getting late in the day and the headmaster wanted to go home.
Pitifully, Anthony nodded his head. He assented.
Mr Audrey was not one of those headmasters who had an array of canes of all lengths and thicknesses bundled together in a cupboard. He had only one rod. Headmaster’s canings were meant to be something special. Unlike his colleagues who punished backsides with standard rattans, Mr Audrey possessed a single “dragon” cane. It was lighter and denser than the rattan and it packed considerably more punch.
He took the cane from a cupboard and flexed it between his hands. “Please take off your jacket and hang it on the door.”
Anthony was dressed in a smart dark-grey business suit with a gleaming white shirt and striped tie. When he removed the jacket, he looked exactly like a schoolboy; albeit an older version of those who usually visited the headmaster’s study.
Audrey moved the straight-backed chair away from his desk.
“Please lower your trousers and bend over my desk.”
Although Anthony had “consented” to the beating, his body still refused cooperation. His hands continued to tremble and his eyes to blink ferociously. After much fumbling his belt was undone and his fly zipper lowered. The trousers slid down his legs aided only by gravity.
It was a large desk. Anthony had never been required to prostrate himself like this before, nor had he seen anyone caned so he was unsure how to position himself.
“Flat on your stomach. You might find it useful to fold your arms and bury your face in them.” Anthony found the headmaster’s words comforting. No longer was he barking at him.
He did as instructed. As he lay his head down he felt a cool breeze pass over him. The study window was open. Suddenly, he heard voices. At least two small boys had stopped in the quadrangle below the study window. He could hear their conversation.
No! They would hear his beating. It was humiliating enough to be forced to lower his trousers, bend across the desk and offer up his bottom for a thrashing, but to also have strangers listening-in was too much.
The headmaster was making his preparations. Up came the young man’s shirt and it was moved away from his underpants. Then the creases were smoothed from the white cotton briefs.
“Try to keep as still as you can,” the headmaster’s words were well meant. He knew that if the young man flashed about the cane might miss its target. Twelve strokes across the buttocks was the tariff; not across the backs of the legs.
The headmaster found his spot. The buttocks were clenching and unclenching. They twitched uncontrollably. He raised the cane and thwacked it down, drawing a straight line across the cotton briefs.
As headmaster’s canings went, it was not a severe cut. Mr Audrey had delivered harder. Anthony did not know that. It felt like the head had placed a white hot wire across his flesh. He raised his head from his arms and yelped.
The conversation beneath the window stopped abruptly.
Anthony stamped his feet up and down in a futile attempt to ease the pain.
“Keep still, Hastings.” Thwip number two landed close to the first cut.
Twenty-seven years is an unusual age at which to receive a first caning. The recipient is a full-grown adult and presumably has quite a high pain threshold. The headmaster rather admired Anthony’s resilience. Mr Audrey administered what he considered an exemplary thrashing. His whippy dragon cane bounced up and down across Anthony’s buttocks. The young solicitor chewed down on his own arms and managed to stifle most of the yells he desperately wanted to make.
Headmaster Audrey thought this was Anthony’s stoicism, his determination to take his justified punishment. But, Anthony’s motivation lay outside the headmaster’s study, below the window in the quadrangle. The young man did not want to embarrass himself in front of the two strangers.
Nothing Anthony had ever experienced prepared him for the pain of a caning. It was agony, especially as each successive stroke landed on his already swollen bottom. He muffled screams by chomping hard into the cloth of his shirtsleeves. He kicked his legs as Audrey administered swipe after swipe. The fire in his buttocks defied description.
Nine strokes were delivered in carefully timed sequence. Anthony’s backside was blazing. Already, deep welts had formed under his briefs. He would discover later that several wept blood.
The headmaster adjusted his position. The final three strokes were going to be special. They were vicious strokes. He raised the cane high above shoulder height and with a swivel of his hips he brought it crashing down diagonally across both cheeks.
Then he did the same again; from the opposite diagonal. Anthony’s bum now had a perfect “X” branded deep into the flesh. The young man’s shirt sleeve was drenched in saliva, but still he curbed the shriek he truly wanted to let loose.
For the last swipe, Audrey positioned himself rather life a golfer about to tee-off. His whole body strength went into that shot. It landed across the centre of Anthony’s bum. It was the final stroke and it was the one that destroyed his resolve.
A banshee could not have wailed louder. Anthony’s whine echoed around the study, bouncing off the three walls and escaping through the partly opened window. Involuntary tears flowed down the twenty-seven-year-old’s face. He gulped great sobs as he lay across the desk. His long, slim, slightly hairy legs embraced each other.
Audrey did not consider himself to be a brute. He had administered a sound thrashing to a young man who thoroughly deserved it. Anthony would be in severe pain. That was the point of a headmaster’s caning. There would be marks across his buttocks for a considerable time to come. That too was the point. They would be a reminder of the consequences of thieving.
Anthony was regaining some composure. His breathing had eased and his heartrate was closer to normal.
“Get up and get dressed.” It was a stern command.
Anthony hauled himself to his feet. The agony in his backside was terrific. It set off shudders of more pain when he pulled up his trousers and fastened them up. He retrieved his jacket from the hook on the study door.
He stood in front of the headmaster waiting to be dismissed.
“I trust the lesson has been learned,” Audrey was back to being the aging, pompous headmaster. “We shall never speak of this again.”
He held out his hand and Anthony shook it.
“Thank you, Sir,” he gulped and left the study.
A few moments later he hobbled across the quadrangle, conscious of the stares of two incredulous eleven-year-old boys burning into the back of his neck.
This story was first uploaded in January 2016.
Picture credit: Unknown
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