By Andrew Grantham from Janus 29
Sarah stood in the wings, her young heart fluttering in her breast.
Mr Armitage, the theatre owner, resplendent in his black tails, peered through a small ‘spyhole’ in the red velvet curtains.
‘The mayor and the bishop are just arriving,’ he announced as he strode past Sarah and made his way to the pass door leading to the front of the house.
‘Nervous eh, Sarah?’ asked a young stage hand as he began his climb up the metal ladder high into the flies.
The very pretty, dark-haired girl nodded, bit her lip and swallowed hard. By the light of a dim gas lamp, an elderly scene-shifter was reading the provincial evening newspaper. ‘This war in South Africa won’t last long,’ he pronounced sagely. ‘Them Boer farmers’ll be no match for our lads!’
The girl in the wings watched as a chair was carried out to the centre of the stage and placed just inches behind the curtain.
Out front in that temple of rosy glows, the Alhambra Theatre, the well-dressed and well-heeled citizens of the town gathered in their seats. Cigar and cigarette smoke mingled with the smells of dust and disinfectant.
Menfolk outnumbered the women but there was still a glittering array of necklaces, bracelets and flashing rings.
Sarah spotted something lying at her feet and she bent down to pick it up. It was that week’s Alhambra programme featuring, twice-nightly, the famous star, Tilly Trotter.
The stage manager, a heavily-built, middle-aged man sporting a gold watch chain across his paunch, motioned for quietness backstage.
‘Mr Armitage is making his curtain speech,’ he announced. Looking at Sarah, his dark eyes bore into her. ‘You’ll be on in a minute, young miss,’ he told her.
In the wings, Sarah was the centre of attention. There seemed to be more stage hands around than was usual. Where had they all come from?
Alongside her, two hefty men prepared to pull on the rope that would open up the stage to the audience. There was a roll on the drums and Sarah tensed. It was now only a matter of seconds until she appeared before the good people of the town who had put money into Mr Armitage’s pocket in order to watch her.
Mr Armitage fingered his waxed moustache as he completed his oration and he walked off the stage. The drummer, the only member of the theatre orchestra in the pit, commenced his roll. The house lights faded on the boxes and balconies. The noisy chatter of the audience subsided. With a sound like the wings of a great bird, the heavy red velvet curtains rose upward from the footlights.
Instead of the stage revealing a line of chorus girls exhibiting the usual bruises from the night before, the only thing on show was the wooden chair. Until Sarah was given a push which propelled her onto the boards. The spotlight picked her out instantly.
She was wearing neither her normal clothes nor her programme seller’s uniform. She was clad in a long black cape which completely concealed her form.
Although she was by no means a small girl, she looked tiny and pathetic as she picked her way across the large stage.
The whole time she was walking from the wings, the drummer in the pit picked out a slow beat on his kettle drum.
As Sarah reached the chair she stopped and faced the audience. Blinded by the glare of both the footlights and the limelights, she screwed up her eyes.
In the front row of the stalls, the mayor nudged the bishop. ‘A pretty girl,’ he remarked. The bishop agreed.
The audience was hushed and expectant. There was a low murmur as Mr Armitage strode back into view. He made a very imposing figure. The eyes of everybody in the audience strayed from the pretty girl in the spotlight. Instead they focussed upon the object carried by Mr Armitage in his right hand — a formidable two-and-a-half foot length of thin bamboo!
Sarah let out a little cry of fear as the theatre manager advanced upon her. He stopped and swished the wicked-looking wand through the air.
The girl cowered before it. The audience were delighted by her reaction.
‘Come along, girl. Off with that cape!’
Sarah didn’t move. Her lips were dry and her lovely blue eyes were wide with fear.
‘Hurry up, girl!’ he hissed. ‘Or is it more of the cane you want?’
That caused Sarah to move. Sniffling a little, she undid the clasp at her throat and the big cape floated down to the well-trodden boards of the stage.
Her nudity was sudden — and total, producing a gasp from the audience. Most of them were by now accustomed to seeing a totally naked girl on the Alhambra stage — after the normal twice-nightly performances were finished and the general public had departed!
Sarah was a vision of loveliness. Topped, and tailed, by hair as black as jet, she stood trembling as her nakedness was inspected by the eager audience. It was the first time since puberty that she had appeared unclothed before anyone. Instinctively, her hands flew to guard her bearded crotch.
‘Put your hands by your sides, girl!’ ordered Mr Armitage. ‘Being humble is part of your penance and part of your punishment!’
It was also part of the audience’s enjoyment — the good bishop included. Both he and his neighbour, the mayor, were well pleased with Mr Armitage’s occasional presentations — when erring girls and young women in his employment were publicly flogged by him in front of his ‘paying guests’. They were happy in the knowledge that the good man was keeping people in their proper place, and that by witnessing the punishments they were helping to maintain a good social order. Mr Armitage was, in their eyes, a fine, upstanding servant of the community.
The good citizens gazed at the girl provided by Mr Armitage. The men stared greedily, the women enviously. Sarah was a fine specimen by the highest of standards.
Their eyes travelled upwards from her springy pubic curls to her youthful breasts, firm and tip-tilted; breasts that had only been slightly brushed by a daring, boyish hand.
Her elegant, narrow waist led to young thighs, formed with the promise of exquisite sensuality. Her legs were long and young, and they still had to wrap themselves around the waist of a lover.
An admiring member of the audience who had seen the second house of the earlier show remarked to his neighbour, ‘I would sooner pay to see this girl than to see the celebrated Tilly Trotter!’
‘Miss Trotter has an excellent voice,’ was the reply.
‘Ah yes,’ agreed his friend. ‘But we shall hear this girl’s voice. And see her dance, too!’
Both men chuckled at the prospect.
As naked as the day she was born, but with considerably more attractions on view, Sarah stared out over the footlights, trembling in her shame. As her eyes accustomed to the glare, she began to make out the figures of the audience occupying the first few rows of seats. She was surprised to see women there, one or two of them looking as though chandeliers had fallen on their heads.
Her own colleagues from the ‘front of house’ were afforded a higher, albeit free, view from the first row of the Dress Circle.
Strangely, her nipples began to perk up and she was aware of a somewhat disconcerting tingle within her.
Mr Armitage stroked his moustache. What a fine figure of a girl! This was indeed a rare treat. ‘Turn around!’ he ordered Sarah.
The girl did as she was told and there were further appreciative gasps and murmurs from both the stalls and the circle. The backstage staff would have their own close-up treat after Sarah had given her public performance.
The bottom of the pretty programme seller was a sheer delight to behold. It was as if it had been moulded from a perfect cast.
‘That’s a lovely arse right enough,’ remarked someone just out of the bishop’s hearing.
‘It won’t look so lovely when Armitage has finished with it,’ sniggered one of the ladies privileged to watch the event.
The theatre owner licked his lips, anxious to get to work on the young flesh at his disposal.
His excitement betrayed itself in his voice as he gave the next order to the petrified girl. ‘Bend over with the flat of your hands on the chair!’
Sarah obeyed and cried out as Mr Armitage actually touched the silky cheeks of her bottom with his hands and pushed her shoulders down so as to get her in the position he wanted. She fought to keep her legs pressed firmly together.
The excited silence in the auditorium was broken by the pit drummer as he commenced a roll on the drums.
Sarah heard the tap-tap-tap suddenly stop. There was a whooshing sound followed by a noise like a pistol shot.
Instantly, her bottom went on fire and she yelled out with the pain — a pain that was entirely new to her.
The pain was excruciating.
To her astonishment, there was applause from the audience!
The drum no longer heralded the approach of Mr Armitage’s cane. However she heard it coming and braced herself.
‘Oh… oh!’ she cried out as new agony flooded her body.
Again, the audience broke into applause.
‘Yeeeooww!’ she screeched as her tormentor landed into her once more.
Sarah was now unaware of the delighted response from the audience. Her bottom had become her universe. Her head thrashed to and fro. Her eyes were clamped shut and her teeth clenched on her lower lip.
The explosive report of the thin bamboo onto the young, firm flesh brought forth a shrieking scream that rang around the gilded plaster cherubs, high up in the domed ceiling of the Alhambra.
The enthusiastic audience responded eagerly as Sarah’s bottom bucked and writhed turbulently in front of them.
Again the young girl yelled and performed a little dance to the song of the cane. The audience were really getting their money’s worth and they showed it in the traditional fashion.
To those watching from various vantage points backstage, Sarah’s face had become a mask of agony under the non-stop barrage of pain.
When she had first bent over the chair, her chief concern had been to keep her knees pressed together. Now, her only concern was to ride out the slashing strokes to her flaming bottom, if only that were possible. The audience craned forward in their seats.
Sarah had lost count of the strokes after the first five. All she wanted was to hobble out of the Alhambra for ever and ever. But she knew she couldn’t. Her family needed her little income too much.
She rolled her hips. Her throat was hoarse and dry with her shrieks and yells of pain, but her cheeks were wet. Her eyes were closed and her breath came in short, harsh pants.
‘He’s really giving it to her,’ commented a man in the front row.
‘Wouldn’t you?’ asked his neighbour.
Sarah’s body was shattered. She was crying bitterly, like a stricken thing. Just as she thought she was about to collapse, she realised that the curtain had fallen on her performance.
Willing and eager stage hands half-carried her into the wings and tended to her welts. Sarah cared not that her body was mauled and probed in the process. She heard the youths and men talking amongst themselves as she sipped a tot of hot rum.
‘The last girl’s arse we looked after wasn’t in this state.’
‘Maybe not, but she wasn’t a patch on Sarah was she?’
‘That’s the worst of being pretty when the boss is enjoying himself with that cane of his!’
Eventually, Sarah was able to go home. In the fog, the steam cars passed like phantoms, clanging their bells. She clutched the penny Mr Armitage had generously given her for the fare.
Walking was painful but it would be even more painful sitting on the hard wooden seats of the crowded, swaying tramcar.
As she made her way back to her humble family home, she thought about the events that had led to her being chastised.
The programme sellers supplemented their income by re-selling programmes that had been discarded at earlier performances. They then pocketed the proceeds themselves.
Instead of sacking her on the spot when a patron had reported her, Mr Armitage had offered her an alternative.
Sarah had accepted the alternative, just as she would the next time, too. The theatre owner needed a supply of young ladies for his special entertainments and young girls like Sarah needed the extra money.Her shoes clattered on the cobbles. She laughed to herself as she thought that she had actually topped the bill at the Alhambra with the famous Tilly Trotter! Who would it be with the next time?