I have never fathomed out how my mind works and why it is that certain events, be they ever so short-lived, have been etched indelibly into my mind. The story I am about to relate deals with one such event, which probably lasted for 15 minutes at the longest, but it is certainly far from being forgotten.
I should also add, politely, that I would be disappointed if anyone who reads this story were to take it as condoning the event that took place. This is definitely a case of autre temps, autres moeurs – loosely translated as ‘different things for different eras’.
This particular event took place half way through the summer term during my first year at preparatory school in England, during the latter part of the 1950s. The day had been warm and all of us had been out for a considerable length of time in the warm summer air, playing cricket, tennis or just running around as all of us did in those days, having been liberated from the confines of the classroom.
We had followed the usual evening rituals and were all safely tucked up in bed, waiting for Matron to come and turn the lights out. Matron was in fact a young woman in her mid-20s – a paediatric nurse who had decided to pursue her career in school nursing care, which included management of the junior pupils.
Of course, to a nine-year old, she looked positively ancient, but nowhere near as ancient as the bearded elderly lady who taught us music and French! We were convinced she had been a nanny to the pharaohs!
For some reason, all of Matron’s young charges were quite chatty that evening but the noise level subsided significantly in response to her command to ‘settle down and go to sleep’, or face the dire consequences that attended failure to respect this sacred school commandment, to wit: ‘Thou shalt not utter a word after lights-out!’
In the slightly reduced light levels following ‘lights-out’ in a westward-facing dormitory on a summer’s evening, total silence reigned as we all listened out for the sound of Matron’s footsteps as she retreated down the few stairs to her dispensary. Once those sounds had faded into the distance, the rebel spirit stirred in one or two brave souls and whispered conversations commenced.
For some reason, I must have been feeling a tad grumpy, to the point that I felt compelled to urge my fellow resident pupils on more than one occasion to ‘shut up and let us get some sleep’.
Unfortunately, I was not sufficiently cautious about the increasing volume of my polite requests, for no sooner had I uttered what proved to be the last one than the door flew open and Matron entered, with a look that suggested that she was somewhat displeased. However, her displeasure was not directed towards anyone except me and it still makes me shudder to recall her accusatory finger as it wagged in my direction.
“You, boy! Put your dressing gown on and go and wait outside the headmaster’s room on the old wing landing!”
Every boy in the school was aware of the headmaster’s room on the old wing landing and of the inevitable consequences of being summoned to this den of terror, over which there should have been a sign reading ‘here be dragons’ (or at least ‘a dragon’ – for by that name is the notorious cane known nowadays).
The corridor leading down towards the old landing led past bathrooms and toilets on the right-hand side, followed by cupboards full of bed linen and towels. It seemed to be an endless walk and my young limbs seemed most reluctant to take me to meet my fate. Moving through that dark tunnel towards the landing, bathed in evening sunlight, the butterflies in my tummy became increasingly agitated, to the point at which I feared that I might have to run back to the bathroom to avoid adding to my doom by decorating the carpet.
I must have frozen for a few moments as I rounded the corner and saw the dreaded cane leaning against the door leading into what was to be the punishment room (which was actually the headmaster’s bedroom). It seemed ages before I heard the terrifying sound of adult footsteps approaching up the stairs and by the time the headmaster appeared at the top, I was shaking like a nervous wreck.
I had heard horror stories about the cane but had still not quite focused on the fact that I was about to add my own experience to the great catalogue of puerile memoirs that recalled scenes acted out in similar contexts all over the country. Having watched the headmaster pick up the cane – a mean looking. brownish-yellow scorpion with a vicious sting, I heard myself being ushered inside and the door to the room being closed behind us.
I quickly learned that the principles of Habeas Corpus had yet to percolate to the remoter nooks and crannies of the educational establishment and that any expectation of making a plea in defence of my actions was ill-founded and could easily result in painful doubling of my jeopardy.
I do not, strangely, recall verbatim what words were uttered by the head in the one-way conversation that ensued, apart from references to obedience, school rules, respect and discipline. What I do remember through that blurry haze was a sudden burst of crystal clear light in the eye of this hurricane, when I was instructed to lift my dressing gown and bend right over the bed.
Terror may paralyse and freeze the victim, but it has no analgesic properties whatsoever. The initial shock as the cane briefly touched my very thick pyjamas was rapidly dispelled by four very devastating eruptions of white hot pain as the penalty was paid, evenly distributed vertically across my suffering derrière.
I do recall leaping up in agony after the second stroke and wondering if clemency might be an option in response to voluble penitence, but that was not to be the case. It was only the fact that it was my first-ever caning that spared me two strokes to make the penalty up to a classic ‘six of the best’.
I still recall that unearthly whistling howl, making the Banshee sound like a chorister in comparison, as the cane approached its target. The ensuing sound of contact was like a rifle shot.
My last recollections of that scene were a very tearful traipse back along the dark corridor and into the bathroom, where an instinct told me that a basin full of cold water might prove slightly therapeutic. The emphasis here is on ‘slightly’, since emerging from the cold water seemed, if anything, to exacerbate that excruciating pain. It was also an opportunity to practise that renowned ‘just caned’ ritual for the first time and to examine the craftsmanship of the headmaster in creating four very neat, but enormous stripes.
Those final six steps leading up from the new landing to the junior dormitory called for considerable effort but I did eventually make it back to my bed, where I took great care to lie on my side and wonder if I would ever sleep. I did, though!