Bruce is standing with his nose centimetres from the wall. The smell of damp plaster is cloying. He thinks he is about to sneeze. The passageway is hot and humid. The mid-afternoon sun blazes but none of the windows are open. They have been stuck closed for years: no budget for maintenance Bruce stares dead ahead as instructed. To his right two other students stand obediently. To his left are a further three. All stand in silence. All Bruce can hear is rhythmic breathing. No one dares speak. All afraid of breaking more rules.
Bruce was the third to arrive. All were summoned to attend at three o’clock sharp and don’t dare be late. All arrived early. Some earlier than others. None knew that the rule was first to arrive, first to be dealt with. Bruce feels under dressed. He is in blue jeans and green t-shirt. Both of the two ahead of him in the queue are in smart business suits. The others are in smart trousers. All wear neck ties. One wears a blazer. Bruce thinks he looks like a schoolboy. Now he thinks about it, less than six months ago he was.
The heavy oak door at the end of the passageway opens. Nobody turns his head, but they all sense what is happening. A tall, thin teenager shuffles out. His face soaked in perspiration, eyes dampened by tears. His neck is scarlet. He hesitates slightly, whispers to the boy at the head of the line and then darts down the passageway, both hands clutching the seat of his trousers. The air is thick with expectation. Still nobody speaks. The boy at the head of the queue fastens the button of his suit jacket, checks his tie and sucks in a lungful of air. With absolutely no enthusiasm he knocks on the door. The boy catches the faintest sound from the other side, he turns the handle and pushes against the heavy oak.
Another day at Brocklehurst University. The same ritual is played out every afternoon at 3 p.m., Monday to Thursday. Week in and week out. The Dean of Discipline likes to spend Friday afternoons at the golf club so he brings forward the line-up to one o’clock.
This is Bruce’s first time on the Dean’s List. It is his third month at the university. It is a wonder to him he has escaped for so long. The list of rules at Brocklehurst is endless. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Be on time. Get good grades. Keep your nose clean. Don’t make waves. Or else. It’s the Dean’s List. And, that means only one thing. The door creeps open again. Another sorrowful boy limps out. “Six!” he gasps. “Bare arsed,” he says disbelievingly. “Bare arsed!” he repeats to make certain they all understand he is incredulous. “Your turn,” he nods at his companion in the suit. “Bloody hell!” He waddles down the passageway towards the staircase and freedom.
Bruce continues staring at the wall. Six. Bare arsed. He shuts his eyes. Bloody hell indeed. Corporal punishment. At university. Aged eighteen. The world is turning upside down. It started when Britain crashed out of the European Union. The government collapsed. The opposition parties were useless. There was turmoil everywhere. Food shortages. Riots on the streets. Suddenly from nowhere came the New Democratic Party to save the nation. They knew what Britain needed. A little bit of gardening. They had made that joke a lot at the time the NDP came to power. Lawn Order. Cut the grass neat and tidy. They meant law and order, of course. And they meant it too.
In the flick of an eyelid new regulations were passed. Curfews were introduced. Food was back in the shops. The immigrants were sent home. The public loved it. Especially, when the NDP went for the no-good layabout youth. That gormless politician who spoke like he had a plum in his mouth and the funny double-barrelled surname called, “bring back the birch for juvenile delinquents”. So, they did. And the cane at school. Before you knew it no fellow under the age of thirty was safe from corporal punishment. Students at university, apprentices in factories, office juniors and many more suffered.
Bruce has a tenuous grasp of all this history. It matters little to him. All he knows for sure is he flunked his mid-term examination. Too much time spent with his lips around a beer bottle and not enough with his nose in a book. He knows he has no one to blame but himself.
His heart is trying to pound through his ribcage. His head aches a little. Six. Bare arsed. This is unchartered territory. Like many eighteen year olds he has never been spanked before. The laws are that new. The door opens. Bruce gets a whiff of sour breath as the boy leans towards him and croaks, “Your turn.”
Bruce faces the door. His eyelids flicker. His heart races. His hand is unsteady. He raps his knuckles on the oak panel and waits for the call. His palm sweats as he turns the handle and pushes his way into the Dean of Discipline’s office. The room is large. A conference table runs almost its entire length. A heavy sideboard takes up one wall. A window – this one also jammed shut – faces him. Dean Cooper holds a tablet in his hand. He peers over the top of his spectacles at the screen. “Name?” he does not look up at Bruce. Bruce answers, his voice cracking. Dean Cooper uses his thumbs to find Bruce on his list. “Ah,” Dean Cooper says, still not looking at the student before him. “First time. I see.” He doesn’t give Bruce time to confirm this. “Stand there.” Dean Cooper speaks but does not say where it is Bruce must position himself. Bruce stands in a space between the conference table and the door. He is surprised he is so calm. He watches Dean Cooper, a short, dumpy man in his fifties, reach over to the top of the sideboard. Only now does Bruce see the dark-brown rectangular paddle that rests there.
Dean Cooper grips it in his right hand. It is about thirty centimetres long and maybe ten wide. Bruce has never seen a punishment paddle before but he knows instinctively that this one has been lovingly crafted. Twelve holes are neatly drilled in groups of two along its length. Sunlight reflects off its thick coating of varnish. “Face that way.” Dean Cooper nods towards the far wall. Bruce swivels on the balls of his feet. Any moment now, he will be ordered to bare his arse. He knows he has no choice. He must do as instructed. If he refuses punishment he will be expelled from the university. He won’t be able to get a job and he will end up in one of those camps for the young jobless that the NDP has just set up.
Bruce scrunches up his face, bracing himself for the humiliation. Bent over, arse bared to the wind, his crack and balls on full view to this oily old man. “Assume the position.” Bruce hesitates. Assume the position. What does that mean exactly? Take down your jeans? Underpants too? Dean Cooper snarls, unable to hide his irritation. He wants to get this over with. He doesn’t have all afternoon. There is a gin and tonic with his name on it waiting for him at the Three Fishers.
“Assume the position,” he repeats. Then, mindful that Bruce is a first-timer, he adds, “Bend over. Grab your ankles. Keep your knees straight.” A wave of relief washes over Bruce. Bend over. Grab your ankles. Keep your knees straight. So it isn’t to be bare-arsed at all. Almost with gratitude, Bruce leans forward. It is harder to assume the position and keep his knees straight than he thought. He feels his jeans tighten across his buttocks. He winces when Dean Cooper places the paddle across the centre of his cheeks and pats gently. Bruce stares down at the patterned rug beneath his feet. It is brown and full of dust. Absurdly, at that moment he remembers most of the cleaning staff lost their jobs recently because of cuts in budgets. The wood feels heavy as it taps across his bottom. Dean Cooper is getting his aim.
Bruce closes his eyes tight and tenses his buttocks. The paddle raises and returns, crashing into his cheeks with tremendous speed. The force knocks him forward and it takes some doing for Bruce to stop himself falling headlong onto the floor. He grips his ankles more tightly. The paddle crashes down again. It feels like Dean Cooper has pressed a hot iron into his flesh. Within seconds Dean Cooper whacks the paddle six times into Bruce’s bum. “Stand. Go.” Dean Cooper returns the paddle to the sideboard and takes hold of his tablet waiting for the next boy.
Bruce is winded. His bottom hurts. Quite a bit. But, he is not in agony. The pain is sharp at first but quickly it turns to an intense throb. Even as he prepares to leave the room, it is becoming a dull ache. It will be gone entirely by the time Bruce reaches his room and can inspect the damage.
Bruce tugs open the heavy door and pushes himself through. He is breathing heavily and he thinks his face must be either deathly pale or bright scarlet. He nods at the next boy in the line. “Good luck,” he says as he makes his leave. “It wasn’t so bad,” he thinks to himself and wonders how long it will be before he finds out what it feels like to get it on the bare.
Picture credit: Unknown
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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