I felt the usual hot flutter of nerves as my name was called out in class. A few moments before, a prefect had brought in a note and handed it to Miss Spencer. She gazed at it unemotionally through horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘Alison,’ she said, eyebrows rising slightly. I pushed myself up from my hard, wooden desk seat. ‘You are to report to the Head immediately.’
In the pit of my stomach, I felt a hint of sickness. Once before I had had to report to the Head. That had been when I was 17, about six months before. What had happened, I had always tried to shut off from my mind. Without a great deal of success. Mind you, I admit I deserved it. Breaking out of the school, at night, with two other girls… then getting drunk and being picked up in town by the police. Well it was something which deserved to be punished for. The other two I broke out with got the same; so they told me afterwards. One of them actually showed me. We did not, of course, complain. Parents or Guardians would not have been sympathetic. They knew Bradley’s had a tradition of a strict Code of Discipline; so doubtless that was why we had been sent to board there in the first place.
My legs felt a bit wobbly as I left the classroom — the Sixth — but I managed to keep my chin up and try and look unconcerned. Everybody would be wondering, just as I was. As I walked down the parquet-floored corridor, so highly polished, I tried to think what this could be about. I couldn’t recall having done anything particularly stupid of late. Just been a bit slack and, on occasions, a shade too cheeky. But that hardly merited a call to the Head’s study. Perhaps, I said to myself comfortingly, it’s really nothing at all. Maybe a relative is ill. Or has died. And I’m having to be informed privately. Since my parents were already dead, I wasn’t over concerned. If Aunt Mabel fell off her perch I wouldn’t be worried. Except about the size of her will. No… it must be something like that. There was no need to worry.
Thus it was, having convinced myself, that I knocked on the Head’s door almost jauntily.
In I went and, immediately, my nerves flared again. There was a of sombreness about her study. Something ominous. Then the sickness in my tummy started up again when I saw a portly male figure, in formal dress, seated nearby the Head’s desk. He looked like a retired Archdeacon (which he might have been for all I knew) but what I did know was that he was one of the school governors. I had seen him several times up on the platform on Open Days. What, I wondered in sudden apprehension, was he doing there? It was lucky, I told myself, that I had taken the precaution of going to the toilet on the way to the Head’s study, otherwise the sight of this formidable duo could easily have made me almost wet myself.
Trying to look unconcerned, I advanced to the front of the Head’s desk. ‘So this is the girl in question,’ said the Governor. I felt rather than saw his eyes roving over me.
‘That’s right, Mr Cromer,’ said the Head sternly. ‘This is Alison Grey. She has been with us five years, ever since she was 13. There have already been several black marks against her.’ The Head fingered the folder in front of her and once again, I recalled my last visit. My nerves were jangling. What on earth could have happened? ‘It is her Aunt’s opinion that she is the type of girl who needs watching and who would benefit from strict control.’ My resentment towards Aunt Mabel intensified. Obviously — more’s the pity — she hadn’t fallen off her perch.
‘From what we now know,’ said the Governor superciliously, ‘the girl’s Aunt is perceptively correct.’ He turned to the Head and I felt a certain relief that his bulbous blue eyes were not boring into me. ‘You… er… have informed her of… of this… unfortunate matter?’
‘I have,’ replied the Head. My nerves jangled more violently. I felt hot under the armpits — and elsewhere — then suddenly chilled. What was going on? ‘She authorised me to take whatever measures I thought fit.’
‘Good…’ said the obese Mr Cromer. His white jowls quivered softly. He licked pale pink-grey lips as he pressed his plump hands together. I could not have loathed the sight of him more, nor all he stood for. The pompous Establishment which always thought it knew best as far as girls of my age were concerned, yet it certainly did not!
‘Alison!’ I focussed on the Head, seeing her hard brown eyes upon me.
‘Yes, Ma’am?’ I tried to make my voice confident but it came out as a squeak. The Head’s name was Mrs Arnold but I think she was widowed. In any event, I could never imagine any man wanting to marry her. She had the puffy starchiness of a Victorian Governess.
‘Something has been brought to my attention,’ she said. ‘Something so… so… abominable, I felt it only my duty to call in one of the school governors.’
I stood rooted to the spot, quivering inwardly and outwardly, wondering what it was all about. Racking my brains. ‘Your trunk has been searched.’
With that, my heart seemed to sink into my shoes. A freezing sensation went through me yet, at the same time, I felt my cheeks flushing scarlet. I felt those bulbous blue eyes, almost gloating, upon me again. I knew what had been found. Yes, for sure. And now I cursed myself for being so foolishly tempted. ‘Come on Alison,’ my elder sister had said, ‘take it back to school with you next term. It will while away boring evenings. Not to mention night-time. I had one with me in my last term.’ So it was I slipped the vibrator (so excitingly penis-shaped) into my trunk before I returned to Bradley’s. It had had plenty of use. Well, why the hell not? Yet, needless to say, I was now regretting my weakness. If there was one thing the school was utterly stodgy about, it was anything to do with sex. To be frank, you’d have thought we were living fifty years ago.
‘I… I d-don’t understand…’ I said lamely.
‘I think you do,’ replied the Head sternly. ‘I am not going to embarrass Mr Cromer by mentioning what was found there. It is… too… well… too disgusting. Frankly, I am appalled that any girl in this school should behave in this way.’
I hated her. Did she not realise that sex was something quite natural? Not a sin but a simple pleasure? Even if it be a self-induced pleasure.
‘I concur,’ chimed in the unctuous Mr Cromer. I hated him equally. Could he have ever possibly known the Joys of Sex?
‘I wrote to your Aunt…’ said the Head. My blood ran cold. Aunt Mabel was a spinster who carried a banner for Mrs Whitehouse. It was doubtful, I thought, if she even knew what a vibrator was! ‘I told her I thought you ought to be expelled. Then it was agreed that you stay on until the end of Summer term.’ Inwardly I groaned. Expulsion would have suited me fine. As it was, I had the rest of Spring term and then another term before I would be out of this place.
‘However,’ continued the Head, ‘she was firmly in agreement that you should be soundly punished. As you were after your last escapade.’
I couldn’t help glancing at the Governor, who sat quietly looking smugly satisfied. Surely she wasn’t going to do what she had done before with him there! There was a hot, shivering feeling deep inside of me. This was truly awful. In a way, they had the power to do what they liked; I was helpless. No one to turn to any more.
‘It is something you thoroughly deserve girl,’ I heard the governor saying. ‘Frankly, the younger generation seems to have the same moral standards as the Roman Empire. We know what happened to that. No wonder this nation is in decline!’
I hated the flabby horror even more. What could he know about the younger generation? How they felt? How they yearned for freedom? Their aspirations in life? He was up to his chin in a bog of Victorian values.
‘For this gross indecency, Alison,’ said the Head. ‘You are going to be caned. And more severely than last time.’
I felt sicker than ever. Last time she had given me six strokes of the cane — and that had been bad enough. What did she now intend? ‘Surely… surely… not in f-front of him,’ I found myself quavering. The idea of that was too awful!
‘As a governor, Mr Cromer, is perfectly entitled to be present,’ she answered suavely. ‘In fact, it is my wish that he remain… in order that he observe that serious breaches of school rules are properly punished.’
I could not check the tears of shame that filled my eyes, nor the constriction of my throat. Oh… oh… this was too awful! To be punished in front of a man! And such a horrible old man! It really was too much. I saw her standing up. My heart was pounding. Once again, I thought I might wet myself. She couldn’t mean it, surely! But there she was, opening the drawer of her desk. Then out came that hook-handled cane. The one I had felt so painfully before. ‘P-please… no!’ I heard myself crying out. ‘Pleee…eeease!’
Her features were rock-hard; the governor’s were quivering. Suddenly I knew that this was not so much a matter of discipline but something for his enjoyment. I simply wished the floor would open up and swallow me.
She came around the desk, the cane quivering up and down. In that moment, I remembered acutely the fiery pain of it. Mr Cromer’s flabby hands were gripping the edge of his chair.
‘Twelve strokes,’ she said — and I wanted to die.
‘No! I’ve done nothing wrong… n-not… really!’ My voice was high-pitched. It didn’t sound like me at all. They looked at me disbelievingly.
‘However can you say such a thing, Alison?’ said the Head. There was a note of genuine reproach in her voice. Would her generation never understand? She tapped the desk with her cane. ‘Bend over the chair,’ she ordered crisply. I had heard that order before, I knew just how much it hurt and beads of perspiration seemed to spring out all over my body. I tried to shut Mr Cromer from my mind. It really was outrageous that I should be treated in this way; yet, it seemed, Aunt Mabel thoroughly approved.
‘C-couldn’t we… we… go into another room?’ I heard myself asking.
‘Bend over Alison!’ She was relentless. The cane tapped again. ‘Don’t make matters worse for yourself. You don’t want us to have to use force, do you?’
Us! The thought of that creep Mr Cromer manhandling me was too hideous to tolerate. Tears flowing now, I placed myself over the chair.
‘Skirt up!’ I pulled it up. Just an ordinary gym-slip… yet what an effort it cost me. Beneath were a pair of navy school knicker-briefs. Standard issue. Boring and utilitarian. Only during the holidays could I wear something more grown-up.
‘Knickers down, Alison!’ Oh Lord… I thought she might have spared me that, in view of the governor’s presence.
‘Please… please… Ma’am…’
‘Knickers down, Alison!’ She was as adamant as a judge, but far less impartial. ‘I won’t warn you again, I shall ask for the governor’s assistance.’
I knew I was defeated. I knew now that I had to endure not only the awful pain but the sickening shame of exposing myself in this obscene fashion. Bitterness filled me. Was it not I who was being punished for being ‘disgusting’? Yet, surely, were these two not far more ‘disgusting’ than I?
Oh what was the use? They had the authority. The power. There was no one to help me. A huge, deep-rooted sob burst from me as I pushed down my knickers and bared my bottom before the Head. And the bulbous blue eyes of Mr Cromer.
By stretching arms fully, I could just grip the far edge of that desk. That was what one had to do. I felt the flesh of my bottom tautening. Knew sheer terror for a moment. Knew abysmal humiliation, too. A horrible old man was able to gaze upon my most intimate secrets. That couldn’t be right… it couldn’t be!
The cane lightly tapped my flesh and I cried out in dread. ‘NO… I’ve done nothing.’
‘You are a wicked libertine!’ came the response. Then I heard the whistle of the cane… then felt the agonising bite. It was worse… far worse… than my memory had let me believe. In an instant, I was up off the chair, hands pressing to the searing weal which had just been raised… then I was down on the floor, kicking and squirming, the dust of a thick pile carpet in my nostrils.
In time, my gasping cries subsided; there was silence but for my sobs. How could I possibly stand twelve like that?
‘Get back over my desk, Alison,’ came that relentless voice. Had she no compassion? No understanding? This punishment was far and away too cruel. ‘If there is one thing a girl deserves to be made to suffer for,’ continued the Head in the same tone, ‘that is lustful sexual indulgence in secret.’
‘I agree,’ came the governor’s voice.
‘Back over the chair, Alison!’
Sobbing, I dragged myself up bent over again. Only by thinking of that repulsive Mr Cromer actually holding me over the chair enabled me to make the necessary effort. I felt my bottom flinching and twisting: I just couldn’t stop it; one leg stretched out. ‘Are you’re sure you don’t need any help, Head?’ It was him again! Oh the awful creep!
‘Not at the moment, Governor,’ came the response. ‘Perhaps a little later it may be necessary…’
Then the cane shrieked through the air again and bit agonisedly into my poor flesh. Oh the pain… the unbelievable pain! Once more, on the instant, I was down on the floor, kicking and squirming, hands pressing in a futile attempt to ease the awful torment.
Oh how could I possibly endure ten more like that? How could they expect me to? I was only made of flesh and blood. And had they any idea just how excruciating a full-blooded stroke from such a cane was? It was doubtful. Otherwise, surely, hard-hearted as they might be, they would not have inflicted such pain upon me.
‘Get back again, Alison.’ I was sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Yet, in truth, it had only just begun. This was true punishment. True terrible punishment. And, in the world in which I was growing up, quite undeserved. All the same, by some miracle of will-power, I hauled myself up once more and fell across the Head’s desk.
In a flash, she had laid on the third blazing stripe.
I seemed to have been in that room for hours, not just about fifteen minutes. There was no end to it. Just pain and more pain, my mouth salty with my tears, my throat hoarse with my cries and pleas. It made no difference. That remorseless caning proceeded. At some stage, I don’t quite know when, I realised Mr Cromer was holding my wrists… keeping me over that chair… whilst the Head unhurriedly completed that awful caning.
Then, mind in a turmoil I realised it must be at last over. I was face down to the carpet again, a grille of fire across my poor, poor bottom. Turning slowly, peering through a mist of tears, I saw I was alone in the Head’s study. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed my blue knickers in tatters on the floor.
What had those monsters done to me? Oh I didn’t deserve it! I didn’t. I couldn’t stop the great heaving sobs coming from me. There wasn’t only the pain (which was almost unbearable) there was the stark injustice of it all. No one, even if they were in authority, had a right to treat a young woman in this fashion. Even if a frigid spinster like Aunt Mabel had agreed. My only comforting thought at that moment was that, before very long, I would be out of the ghastly place. No longer a so-called schoolgirl but an independent woman in my own right.
Lying there in incessant pain, my hands clasped to my bottom, I realised why I had not run away from this place ages ago. Simply because, if I had done so, Aunt Mabel would have cut me out of her will. The Bible was right. Love of money is the root of all evil. I pressed and pressed, but the pain remained.
Should I stay there? Should I go back to class? In the end, I decided to go back to my dorm. And there make good use of a cold flannel. And, if I could find any, some soothing cold cream.
When I got to the dorm, a quick search revealed that the tell-tale vibrator had been removed. I felt a horrible sense of loss… and a furious anger. I suppose it was the same kind of reaction of that of a five-year-old child who has had its teddy bear stolen.