Mr Conan, the senior partner of Conan and Connelly, the well-known scholastic agency, was a large, gregarious fellow with a bulbous nose and several chins that wobbled each time he moved his head. His fleshy jowls trembled as he clutched his fountain pen and held it over a lined secretarial pad.
“Your name, sir.”
I told him.
“Oxford or Cambridge?”
I had not attended university. “Neither sir. London. By correspondence.”
He peered at me doubtfully. “By correspondence. Honours?”
“No, sir,” I squirmed in my seat. The office was as small as Mr Conan was large. I shrivelled before him. Mr Conan shook his head. I knew at that moment my chances of gaining gainful employment were zero. Vacancies for teaching posts were few and the number of applicants better qualified than I were many. But, Mr Conan was not despondent.
“I have the very thing,” he beamed. “An admirable institution. You will be well suited.”
He was not deterred by my dubious expression.
“Yes, indeed young man,” his chins and his jowls moved in unison. “You may start tomorrow if you are so inclined.”
“The salary is not so generous but there is board, lodging and washing,” his smile was infectious. I would have been hooked even if I had not been so desperate. I had not worked in weeks and shortly I would be on the streets, lacking the funds to meet my rent. I was eager to accept, but in my soul I was certain there must be a catch.
“Where is this establishment,” asked.
“The delightful town of Brocklehurst,” he replied. “One of the finest smaller towns in the land.”
I had heard of the name but knew no more about the place. I knew roughly where it was located. It was a journey of an hour of so by train. It was by no means an isolated location. I was sure it is was as amiable place to live as any other. Why then had the vacancy not been filled by a man more qualified and experienced than myself?
“What kind of establishment is this?” I ventured to inquire. I was uncertain that I wanted to hear the reply. It must, I supposed, be a school with some fearful reputation.
Mr Conan, I later concluded, would be able to sell snow to the Eskimo. His face shone brightly as he told me, “It is one of our newer establishments. A specialist college, so to speak.”
He had my attention. “Specialist?” I asked dolefully, fearing he was going to tell me it was a college for some fundamentalist religious sect. Perhaps, Mr Conan read my mind. “No, young sir,” his face radiated honesty, “It is a small college intending to encourage students towards examination success.”
Examination success? Don’t all schools promise that. “How so?” I croaked, still not convinced. “Aha!” Mr Conan, had a ready explanation. “It delivers a curriculum for the older boy who, for whatever reason, requires an intensive period of study in a controlled environment in order to acquire the necessary qualifications to go forth and become a successful member of society.”
He sounded like he might be quoting from the college’s perspective. I suppose I still looked puzzled, so Mr Conan offered a further explanation. “They seek to take examinations by Christmas.”
My own face brightened; the penny had dropped. “Oh,” I ejaculated, “A crammer!” Mr Conan frowned, for once the jocular veneer had been pierced. “I don’t believe young man,” he said, “Such institutions like that terminology.”
Why not? The college was one of many I supposed existed across the country. They catered for the pupils who failed their school examinations. More truthfully, they existed for the fathers of the failures. It was they who insisted the boys must get qualifications and take up careers thereby freeing the fathers of future financial responsibility for their sons. There was nothing reprehensible about this. The boys were probably dunderheads or just as likely were lazy blighters who did not work with sufficient diligence at their studies. Now, they were to be force-fed enough “learning” over a few number of months to allow them successfully to take the examinations again.
I apologised to Mr Conan, saying I had intended no offence. He accepted and his sunny nature returned. I accepted the offer of employment with alacrity and the following day with my worldly possessions only half-filling my suitcase I set off for Brocklehurst. Mr Conan told me it took a maximum of fifty boys each term and I was expecting to find the “college” consisted only of two rooms above a snooker hall. To my astonishment, the building was a massive pile. Having been recently built it was square and very ugly, standing in its own extensive grounds with a broad driveway curving towards the front entrance.
The door was opened by an elderly lady whom I later discovered fulfilled a combined role of matron, cook and general handywoman. She greeted me warmly as if she was genuinely pleased to meet me. She took my suitcase and showed no sign of noticing that it was much lighter than she had expected. I loved her for this. “Please,” she said pointing towards a grand spiral staircase, “Mr Doyle is expecting you. The first door on the right.”
Mr Doyle was the principal of the school. By now I already knew there were three members of teaching staff, including himself. All the boys boarded at the school and one of my duties would be to supervise the dormitories at night. I had no qualms about this. They were all eighteen years old and could be expected to take care of themselves.
I mounted the stairs, noticing the expensive carpet beneath my feet. The house, despite its unprepossessing exterior, appeared well furnished and appointed. I reached the landing and saw the door to my left had a shining brass nameplate: Mr A. Doyle, Principal. I had arrived at my destination. The door was made of dark-wood panels; another example that the college did not lack money. I was about to raise my fist to rap on it when I heard voices on the other side. I am not generally an inquisitive person and it would never occur to me to peek through keyholes but for a reason I cannot explain I lowered my hand and waited.
I was rewarded by the sounds of voices. I couldn’t hear the words explicitly as the door was too heavy, but it seemed that one person was interrogating another. One voice spoke, there was a moment’s pause and the second voice replied. It went on like this for a few seconds. Then, there was silence. I expected the door to open and one of the parties to leave. This did not happen. I stood transfixed. I could not believe my ears. I was sure I must be mistaken, that I was incorrectly interpreting the sounds from within.
I heard a noise that I can only describe as a “thud”. It was as if something had been struck by I know not what. It was followed by another thud and this time there was an accompanying sound that I took to be a gasp or a yowl of some kind. My imagination raced. I thought I had recognised the noise. Surely not, I thought. I must be mistaken. I counted six thuds in total. Not each was supplemented by a gasp or yelp, but the final one was accompanied by what I can only described as a cry of pain.
There was a silence during which I moved back from the door. My mind was reeling. I was certain I was not wrong. My conclusion was confirmed when the door edged open and a young man slowly emerged. He was perhaps an inch or two taller than myself. As the door closed behind him his hands ruefully massaged his backside. I saw his eyes were wet and his face pale. Only then did he spot me. He shot me a stare of such intense hatred. His white face turned puce and he hurried down the passageway, turned a corner and was soon out of my sight.
I watched him go. It did not take much imagination to conclude the boy had just received a caning. The six thuds, gasps and yelps I had heard were proof of that. And, how the boy despised me for having been a witness. That he was a pupil at the college there was no doubt. But there was still one puzzle. The boy wore a black woollen blazer, the type any schoolboy up and down the country might wear. There was nothing unusual in that, but in addition this boy wore well-cut grey short trousers along with socks that reached to his knees. He was dressed as if he were eight years old, not eighteen.
Intrigued, I knocked on the door and when invited I entered. Mr Arthur Doyle was sitting behind a large desk. It was completely empty except for a blotter encased in leather. My eyes quickly scanned the room; I was searching for the cane I supposed he had used to beat the boy. All evidence had been removed. I noticed a chest of drawers and at least one cupboard that could at that moment be secreting canes.
“Sit down, please,” Mr Doyle indicted a heavy straight-backed chair that was positioned in front of his desk. As I did so I wondered if the boy had moments earlier been draped across this very piece of furniture. From the corner of my eye I saw an armchair that could also have been be used. Then, again the desk I was facing was of a good height to accommodate a prostrate body.
It was difficult to get the image of Mr Doyle caning the boy from my mind. Maybe the boy had been ordered, “Bend over and touch your toes.” Had he been required to lower his short trousers for the caning? What about his underwear? Distracted in this way I am afraid I missed much of what Mr Doyle said to me. Possibly that is of no consequence because once he had finished his welcoming chat he sent me to meet Mr Percival Manners who Mr Doyle said was to show me the ropes.
Manners, “Call me Percy when the boys aren’t in earshot,” was in his mid-thirties. I immediately liked him and it wasn’t only because he brought out his gin bottled and poured us both generous measures. After he refiled our glasses I felt the courage to ask him to explain what I had witnessed. “Yes,” he sipped at his drink. “Corporal punishment is an important part of the regime here, the fathers expect it. In fact, they are prepared to pay a little extra on the fees for it.”
My eyebrow must have shot heavenwards because he hooted a raucous laugh and said, “Stranger things happen at sea.” He explained that the boys sent to Brocklehurst were not stupid; in fact they were mostly academically bright. “Just bone-idle, the lot of them,” he roared. He loved to laugh, even when sober. “So we have to persuade them to study.” His face beamed, “Three feet of whippy rattan applied with some force across the you-know-where makes a mighty-fine inducement for them to work hard.”
“Oh,” I said weakly, unsure how I was supposed to respond. Of course, corporal punishment was used in schools although not as much as it once was. It was banned in the school I had attended. I couldn’t believe colleges were using it on eighteen-year-old boys. But then again that probably explained why Brocklehurst had a devoted clientele prepared to pay a little bit extra. Would I be expected to cane the boys myself?
Percy might have read my mind. “I have a cane here for you to take.” He nodded towards a cupboard but made no move otherwise. “There’s also a list of written rules. It’s not only about studying, it’s the whole way of life.”
That prompted me to ask about the short trousers. Percy laughed again. “Blooming great brainwave. This isn’t a prison, we don’t lock the blighters up in their dorms. What’s to stop them absconding during the day or going down the pub at night?” He answered his own question. “Short trousers. We take away all their civvy clothes when they arrive. All they have is their school uniform. Short trousers. Which of them is going to be seen dead dressed like that in public.”
I nodded my agreement. He was correct, a brainwave indeed. Percy hadn’t finished, “And it reminds then that they aren’t yet adults. They are still children and should be treated as such. Wearing short trousers keeps them in their place.”
We finished our second drink and Percy rose to refill our glasses. While he was on his feet, he opened a closet door and extracted a cane. “Ever use one of these before?” he asked passing it to me. I took it. My eyes popped. “Used one,” I said, fearing my voice might be slurred, “I’ve never seen one before today.” I held it in my hand. It felt light as a feather and I told Percy so. “Don’t be fooled. That little beauty can do a lot of damage.”
I caressed the cane, running my thumb and finger along its length. It was about three-feet long and as thick as a pencil. There were notches every six or eight inches. At one end it had been curved into handle. I held it in my hands and bent it, it flexed easily into an arc. I swished it through the air. “And,” I asked incredulously, “the boys let us beat them with this?”
Percy roared, “Let us!” He took his drink back to his seat, “Well, ‘let us’ might not be the best way to put it. But really they don’t have a choice. Remember their fathers are paying for this. What’s a boy to do? If he refuses he gets expelled. He could run away. Either way, he’s got to face his father’s wrath at some point. No, believe me: we say, ‘Bend Over’ and over they bend.”
The room fell silent for a moment. Then Percy piped up once more. “So you’ve never seen a cane before and obviously never been caned.” We let that remark hang in the air. It was a sultry evening and Percy’s room was stifling. My head was beginning to ache (I was not much of a drinker in those days). “I thought you might benefit from a little tutorial,” Percy’s eyes shone. I blustered.
“You don’t want to make a darned fool of yourself in front of the boys,” he gestured towards the cane that was still in my grasp. “You have no idea how to use that thing.” There was nothing to be gained by denial. Until this day it had never occurred to me I might need to develop such a skill.
“Don’t worry,” Percy beamed, “Percy has it sorted.” I think like me he might be getting drunk. “I’ve asked one of the boys along. You know for a demonstration.” I must have looked incredulous. “A guinea pig, like,” he said by way of explanation. “Namby’s coming,” he put his left hand on his hip and flounced his right wrist (his idea of an effeminate man). “I think he likes it, Ha! Ha! Ha!”
As if on cue there was a knock at the door. Namby was dressed in his school uniform, complete with short trousers. He did not appear the least ill at ease as Percy gestured him to come into the room. He introduced us. He called the boy “Namby” and I assumed incorrectly as things transpired that this was a nickname of some sort. Percy and I both affected not to see the boy glance at the gin bottle. Apparently it was permissible to bring a boy into one’s room to thrash him, but not to drink alcohol.
“Right then,” Percy took immediate control. I wondered at that moment if this was not the first time he had instructed a colleague in the use of the cane. He manoeuvred a sofa so that it was in the middle of the room. Then, he took up the cane and swished it through the air. I could not see Namby’s face but by his general demeanour I calculated that he was not troubled by this scenario. Certainly when Percy instructed, “Bend over the sofa,” the boy did not hesitate to assume the required position.
The back of the sofa was quite high. Namby rested his stomach on the apex and reached forward with his arms and gripped the seat cushion. He spread his legs and bent his knees. “Well done, lad,” Percy encouraged him. Then to me he said, “Always have the head low and the bottom high. See,” he touched the tip of the cane against the crown of Namby’s buttocks, “Perfect.”
He continued speaking as he moved the cane across Namby’s buttocks making a sawing motion, “Ideally, you want to get all the strokes to land as close together as possible. Get one to land on top of another. That’s really painful.” He tapped the cane harder, “Isn’t that so Namby.”
“Yes sir, Mr Manners, sir,” he replied, speaking into the seat cushion.
“Right,” Percy stood to the left of his target. “Stand about three feet away. A cane’s length, then lay the tip across the crest of the furthest buttock.” He demonstrated what he meant. “That way when you whack the cane down it’s sure to hit both cheeks evenly and not just the nearest.” He wobbled the cane, laid it across the seat of the teenager’s short trousers and tapped it with some vigour into Namby’s bum.” Percy looked across at me, “That’s all there is to it really. It’s more craft than science. You just need to practice. It’s all in the arm and wrist. Bring your am back, bring it forward and then at the last moment reverse the wrist so that the cane snaps into his backside.”
I looked on intently as he demonstrated. There was an almighty “Crack!” as the cane whacked into Namby’s tight buttocks. The boy gasped. “Felt that didn’t you lad.” The boy replied, “Yes sir, Mr Manners, sir,” but from where I stood he appeared sanguine. Here,” Percy handed the cane to me, “You have a go.”
My palm was sticky as I received it from him. I held it by the handle and realised immediately this gave me no control over it. “Hold it further down. Here,” Percy took my hand and guided it. I wriggled my wrist trying to get the measure of the thing. From the wobble it made I could see that the cane would be a more powerful weapon than I first supposed. I swiped it through the air and the whoosh it made as it flew sent a small shudder through my body. I stood to the boy’s left, laid the tip of the cane on his far buttock and lifted my arm as instructed. I took one, then two practice strokes. Unaccountably, my heartbeat raced. I raised the cane and then trying to get the correct wrist action I brought it down across the seat of the short trousers.
I was very pleased that it landed where I had intended. “How was that lad?” Percy sipped on his gin. “Sorry Mr Manners, sir,” he said, “I didn’t feel that one.” Percy put down his glass. “Here,” he stood behind me, “Let me help.” He instructed me to lay the cane across Namby’s bottom. Then, he leaned across my body bringing his mouth so close to my face I could smell the gin on his breath. He held my hand in his and directed the cane so it made an arc. Then he guided my wrist so that it made the final snap. “There,” he said. “Try again.” He was very patient with me and I could tell he was an excellent teacher. I would bet the boys loved him.
I took my aim once more. This time I put more beef into the final delivery. It landed with more power. “Better Mr Manners, sir,” Namby said without being asked. I allowed myself a small smile and tried again. This one elicited a gasp from the boy. I wasn’t sure if he truly was in some pain or it was only meant as a gesture of encouragement. Either way, I laid on another and then another. My aim each time was true and each landed with increased force.
“Good,” Percy beamed encouragingly. “Right, Namby brace yourself.” Percy winked at me and said, “Go on. Give him a real six-of-the-best. Make him feel it.” I noticed Namby’s body stiffen, his legs straightened a little and he gripped the seat cushion. He at least had the confidence that I could deliver. I took a deep breath. For the first time I noticed the shape of Namby’s bottom. It was well rounded when stretched across the sofa. His legs were not muscular. This and the short trousers emphasised the buttocks as a target. Trying to remember my instructions, I put the cane across his bottom, taking a horizontal aim. Satisfied by this, I drew the cane back slowly in an arc and keeping my eye on the target I whipped the forearm and wrist. Bingo! Bang on target. Namby’s shoulders stiffened, but he made no sound. I was certain he had felt that one.
I gave myself perhaps twenty seconds to settle and repeated the manoeuvre. The stroke landed about a quarter inch below the first. The third stroke cut between the two. That made Namby gasp. Now, he had three cuts and a throbbing strip of flesh about an inch wide across both cheeks. He wriggled his hips. He was not faking this. My confidence was sky high. I allowed myself to believe I was good at this. A natural even. Whack! Number four landed on top of one (or possible more) of the previous cuts. Namby’s legs flinched. Air hissed through his pursed lips.
The next I landed with full force. I hit so hard I might have been beating a carpet. Namby yelped. I heard Percy speak, “Steady on man.” His voice seemed to be coming from a long distance. My heartbeat was racing and blood rushed to my ears. The room was hotter than ever. I lay the cane across Namby’s bottom. This was to be the final stroke. I wanted it to be memorable. I touched it low down just below where the buttock cheek meets the thigh. It was in fact touching the back of his thigh. The area was still covered by his trousers. I raised the cane, brought it forward, snapped my wrist and left the boy with a red-hot line of fire. His head rose, he let out a yelp, but just in time he managed to prevent his feet from stomping up and down with the agony.
I admired my handiwork. There were thin lines embossed into the tight material of his short trousers where the cane had landed. I was no expert but I presumed his bottom was welted. That’s how it should be, I thought. A caning should be awesome, otherwise both Namby and I should be wasting our time. He remained bent over the sofa, bottom still held high and his head low. His breathing was regular, I am sure he felt pain, but he was not in any agony. Next time, I thought, I would lay it on with more vigour. The boys in my charge must learn I am not a man to be trifled with.
“Stand up lad,” Percy gave the command. I was too engrossed in my own thoughts. The boy scrambled to his feet. His face was scarlet but I could see his eyes were dry. I should concede that perhaps Namby was a more practised receiver of a caning than I was a giver. I had no way of knowing if a less experienced boy would have reacted differently.
I could feel Percy’s eyes burning into me. “You should go now Namby,” he said.
“Yes sir, Mr Manners. Thank you sir,” he said and he offered me his hand to shake. I, my face burning with confusion, shook it. After the door closed behind him I stood in the middle of the room dumbfounded. I still held the cane in my hand and looked at it as if only now seeing it for the first time. I was light-headed and I blamed this on the gin. “You did very well. You learned a good lesson there,” he said. I mumbled some kind of agreement. I hardly heard him, my senses were somewhere else; I was at a place where I had never been.
Percy smiled at me and moved across the room. He held out his hand so I could return the cane to him. As I did so our eyes met. He smiled. “You passed the first test. You know how to deliver a caning.” He paused for an exceedingly long time. I felt my throat tighten. My temples throbbed. He glanced at the cane in his hands, then looked at me straight in the eye. “Do you think you should also learn how it feels to take a caning.”
“Oh yes please Mr Manners, sir,” I wheezed before I stepped forward and dived over the back of the sofa. Then, I wriggled about a bit making certain that my head was low and bottom high.
Picture credit: unknown
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