When I was around six years old, I discovered that I had an amazing power: the power to get my little sister into big trouble!
Don’t get me wrong – obviously, over the preceding years, I had gone crying to my parents if she had been naughty towards me, for example when she went through her hair-pulling phase or when she tried to flush my Barbie down the toilet.
I also used to tell them if she had seriously misbehaved in some dangerous way that I, being the sensible little goody two shoes that I was, thought Mum and Dad should know about (for example, when she started throwing pebbles from the front garden at the neighbours’ cars – I don’t think she sat down for about three weeks after that one!)
But I had never deliberately got her into trouble, particularly for something she didn’t do. All that changed on the day that I, in a rare act of rebellion, ventured into Mum and Dad’s bedroom, despite knowing it was strictly out of bounds.
It was a beautiful day at the start of the school summer holidays and we were all outside; mum and dad relaxing on sun loungers, and Charlotte and I happily playing with our swing, slide and see-saw, chasing each other over the grass and generally having a fun time. Then all that stopped: Dad announced it was time for our afternoon nap.
As a big girl of six, I really felt that I was far too old for such childish things as naps. All week long, I had lain angrily in bed, silently seething that I was being treated in such a babyish way, but obviously too wary of a smacked bum to protest.
So every day I had let myself be led up the stairs by my Mum or Dad, stripped to my pants and vest and put into bed for an hour (which felt like more like five).
This day, however, I’d had enough. I waited until Dad was safely back in the garden and then crept out of bed. At first, I was content playing with my Polly Pockets and my Cupcake Dolls, but I soon got bored and found myself turning the wooden knob to my bedroom door and quietly tiptoeing onto the landing.
At first, I was going to sneak in to Charlotte’s room and see if she was awake – but then my eyes rested on Mum and Dad’s bedroom door. Before I had really thought things through, I found myself creeping in there.
I had literally never set foot in that room before as it was, like the study downstairs, strictly off limits to children. On the very rare occasions I had been ill in the night, I was made to knock on their door and wait outside until one of my parents came out. So, over the years, I had built this unseen room up to be the stuff of legend; mysterious and exciting, forbidden yet alluring.
I was positively giddy with anticipation as I slowly opened the door but was quickly disappointed when before me stood an ordinary bedroom. I decided I must be missing something terribly exciting, and started rifling through the drawers, not really sure what I was looking for.
I had never been so naughty before, but I think that the week of my playing being interrupted by obligatory naps had left me very frustrated and it had come bursting out in this act of rebellion.
I had just finished searching Dad’s bedside table and was about to move on to Mum’s when I heard the back door opening downstairs. With no time to even return the drawer contents to their proper place or close the door behind me, I bolted across the landing, closed my own bedroom door and threw myself onto my bed.
I lay there barely able to breathe, silently praying it was my (ever more reasonable) Daddy that had come to wake us up. My hopes were dashed when I heard Mum angrily shouting: “Why is this bedroom door open?”.
My heart was hammering in my chest so loudly that I was convinced she would hear it from the landing, as I lay expecting the inevitable interrogation to discover which one of us was owed a sore bum. I knew that if asked, I would break down and confess immediately, and my hands automatically sprung to my bottom in terrified anticipation of the pain it was about to feel.
“Why is this stuff all over the floor?” I heard Mum furiously yelling. “Oh, you naughty little girl!” My stomach did repeated somersaults, dreading what was to come. Then mum shouted the three words that granted my own little bum an undeserved pardon: “Charlotte Rose Smith!”
Ninety-nine percent of the time when there was naughtiness in our household, it was my little sister at fault and so Mum, not unreasonably, had obviously automatically decided she was the culprit this time too.
Annoying though she was, I felt I shouldn’t allow my four-year-old sister get her bum blistered on my behalf and so I jumped out of bed, almost colliding with Mum as I ran out onto the landing. My intention had been to immediately set the record straight and confess, but the fury on Mum’s face made me clam up.
I thought back to all the times I had been smacked just for being there when Charlotte had misbehaved, being told I ‘should have stopped her’ (as if she would have listened to me!). I thought back to a few nights ago when I had been smacked by Daddy for splashing my bubbly bathwater all over the tiled floor. My bum was still red and sore from that, and Daddy didn’t even smack as hard as Mum.
I couldn’t face another sore smacking or spend the remainder of the sunny day in my bedroom, tummy rumbling as I went to bed with no dinner – and so I stood silently as my mum marched into Charlotte’s room, ready to punish her for my naughtiness.
Miraculously, Charlotte had remained asleep during Mum’s shouting and was lying asleep on her tummy, little bum sticking up, covered by a pair of pink cotton pants. Thinking back, Mum probably should have realised that the fact she was asleep showed it couldn’t have been Charlotte who had misbehaved; unless maybe she thought she had done it and then had gone back to bed afterwards. Anyway, as it was, Mum slapped Charlotte very hard three or four times over her pants, the pain waking her immediately, as she was dragged – startled and bewildered – from her bed.
As I followed them both downstairs towards the dining room, I felt so guilty, especially seeing her crying little face and hearing her confusedly asking through her tears ‘why mummy?’ At this, Mum shouted ‘don’t you act innocent with me!’ before stopping and giving that little bum another few hard smacks, eliciting fresh tears. I did feel dreadful, but at the same time so relieved it was her and not me.
We entered the dining room and, without having to be told, Charlotte stood with both hands on her head. Mum quickly arranged a chair then pulled down the little four-year-old’s pants. I remember noticing the mix of old and new handprints on my sister’s bare bum and thighs, and wondering if my own bum looked the same. When I looked in the mirror, all I could really see was redness and the occasional bruise – but maybe there were discernible handprints visible too that I was missing, due to the awkward angle of my reflection.
I stood in my own vest and pants, witnessing as mum towered over Charlotte, who held her little hands on her head, fully bare except for her pink vest. Her pants had immediately slipped down from her knees to around her ankles as she stood in bewilderment, listening to Mum shouting generally about disobedience and naughtiness.
When mum finally shouted ‘how dare you go into our bedroom and look through our things?’, Charlotte’s eyes widened in shock, her little voice defiantly replying: “But mummy – I didn’t!” Talking back during a telling-off was bad enough, but to deny the charges brought against you was tantamount to calling Mum a liar.
The atmosphere grew even more tense and we stood in silence before Mum coolly instructed me to fetch her hairbrush. I was shocked – Mummy had only started using the brush on me a few months previously. I was sure that at four, Charlotte would be deemed too young – but still I fetched it, quickly running, so as not to miss any of the hand smacking that had just started.
I placed the brush on the dining table, then slinked back against the wall, watching my sister’s little red face contorting in sobs and anguish as Mum’s hand smacked fire into her bum. Ignoring the confusing, fluttery feeling in my pants, I focused on watching the colour changing. No more individual handprints visible, just a sea of red over my sister’s bum and thighs.
Eventually, Mum held Charlotte tightly over her lap for a few minutes, then picked up the hairbrush and started smacking her hard with that.
This was the first time it had been used on anyone other than myself and I watched with keen interest, taking in every detail: noticing the difference in sound between its duller thud and the crisp slap of mum’s hand; seeing the large proportion of Charlotte’s bare flesh covered by each individual stroke, as its large wooden back smacked against her chubby little bum and legs; hearing her howling reach new intensity, as she wailed and cried in pain and shock; watching her wriggling and squirming desperately on Mum’s lap.
I couldn’t help but feel guilty, although to be honest this soon faded when I was back outside playing in the sunshine: Mum, Dad and I relaxing in our shorts and T-shirts; Charlotte upstairs, crying and sobbing, in just her vest and with a glowing little bare bum and legs.
I later heard Mum and Dad having a heated discussion about her use of the hairbrush, with Dad insisting that at six years old I was too young for it, never mind my four-year-old sister, but from that day on we both continued to get smacked with it, so clearly (and unfortunately) Mum apparently won that argument.
That entire summer, I was drunk with power; having realised that given Charlotte’s reputation for naughtiness and mine for being a goody two shoes, Mum would believe any offence I reported against my sister, true or not.
So it was that I would often go running to Mum, claiming that Charlotte had taken biscuits from the cupboard, broken my toy, pulled my hair, opened the garden gate, played with a ball in the house, said a naughty word, smashed an ornament, done a wee in the paddling pool etc. I must have earned my sister about 15 or 20 soundlt smacked bottoms that summer, for entirely fictional (or at least grossly exaggerated) reasons.
At the time, I just thought that this deception on my part was due to me finding Charlotte so annoying, because she kept taking my toys, or because I wanted time to play by myself (with her banished to her room with a sore bottom). However, given that I used to so keenly watch every single detail of every single smacking, I’m now not so sure about my motives.
I wish I could say that this all ended with me realising the error of my ways; maybe in an attack of guilty conscience or perhaps with Mum discovering my lies and severely punishing me for them, but in reality, it just kind of naturally fizzled out.
At the end of the summer, I started in primary three and Charlotte in primary one, swimming and piano lessons resumed, we saw more of our friends and less of each other, and that was the end of it. I often look back on that summer (incidentally, the last one with my parents still married) with a great deal of guilt – but also, if I’m entirely honest, with a great deal of pleasure too.