"All hands to witness punishment."
It was the next evening and again we were trailing into the gym. The others had told me that this was almost a daily ritual, so I'd better get used to it. Worse, they had told me that only one of them had never been caned over the gun. Part of our sentence was to be regularly flogged. My turn was bound to come.
This time it was one of the youngest boys. When his name was called out – "1768 Watson" – he wailed terribly and started pleading and shouting that he hadn't done anything. Two petty officers grabbed him and hauled him away to the changing room where every boy in the gym could hear him continuing his protests and pleadings. Very soon he was dragged back into the gym. He was stark naked. He fought all the way to the gun, but the petty officers were too strong for him and he was laid over the breech of the gun, his wrists and ankles tied and an extra strap fastened over the small of his back so that he was held helplessly in position.
The bo'sun caned him with the same cane he had used on the bigger lads and every stroke made him scream in agony. When it was over his tight little buttocks were striped across with dark crimson weals and there were two dribbles of blood down his right thigh.
"1768 Watson, punishment completed, sir," announced the bo'sun.
"Very good, bo'sun. Failure to accept punishment – repeat the strokes, please."
There was an anguished wail from Watson and a sigh of fear and anger from the assembled boys. "Silence there," shouted the officer, and the bo'sun delivered another six ferocious lashes to the little boy's lacerated bottom. It was a lesson that I – or anyone else who saw it - could never forget.
That night I discovered that Pratchett had no further designs on my arse and I went to bed un-buggered. I felt that I had seen the cruelty of the place in its worst shapes and nothing much worse could happen to me. True, I had yet to experience a caning over the gun, but it couldn't be far off and I now knew the worst of that, and I had survived Pratchett's treatment of me. And in fact the next eighteen months proved me substantially correct. In no time at all I was used to the place and found that I was able to tolerate it pretty well. And the friendship of the other boys in my watch was a comfort to all of us.
Every Sunday the whole ship's company marched to the nearest church and were forced to sit through the whole service – and woe betide any boy who showed any lack of attention or who talked to a friend, or whose eyes wandered to the groups of young girls who showed off to the lads of the town. Uniforms had to be spotless – shoes were kept specifically for Sundays – and hair had to be in perfect order.
About three months into my sentence, the ship's company were ordered to parade for church twenty minutes earlier than normal. The commandant stood out at the front of the assembled watches and made an announcement:
"Last Sunday, I received unfavourable comment about how miserable all you lads looked. Today, I am taking steps to correct that. You will all smile and look cheerful as you march to church. In the church, you will pay attention to the service and you will enjoy it. Any boy who doesn't smile, or who looks as if he's not enjoying the service will get six strokes the moment we get back here. And so that no boy forgets you'll all be carrying a little reminder with you. The petty officers have their orders. Every boy in the company with now receive six starts over the bare breech and maybe, as you march through the town and as you sit through the service, a little stinging in the rear end will remind you what's in store if you forget. Petty Officers, carry on."
Pratchett started with Clarke, the youngest boy in the watch, ordered him to drop his trousers and bend over, and Grey, the next boy in the line, was ordered to get ready while Clarke received his strapping. From all around the yard came the sound of straps landing stingingly on bare bottoms. Mostly the boys took it without a sound but occasionally yelps of pain showed that it was a full-blooded strapping that we were all getting. As he ordered Grey to bend over, Pratchett told me to get ready. Finding it hard to believe what was happening, I unbuttoned my trousers and let them drop to my knees. There was a bit of a breeze and it was cold round my now exposed genitals.
"Bend over, England. Mortimer, get ready."
I bent, presenting my bare bottom for the strap. The six strokes were terribly painful. Not as bad, obviously, as some of the beatings I had had, but bad enough to leave me with an intolerable urge to rub myself. Pratchett moved on to Mortimer and I pulled up my trousers and re-buttoned them. Surreptitiously, I watched Pratchett's progress through the watch: Gregson, Quint, Dawes, Ronson, Gelly, Quint, the older brother. And then we'd all been done.
One hundred and twenty boys stood there, our bottoms on fire. Then came an astonishing development. The twelve petty officers were summoned to the front, lined up, and then, one by one, ordered to drop their trousers and bend while the bo'sun applied a dozen lashes with a strap to their backsides.
And then the ship's company marched to church. There were always people who stood and watched us pass, especially girls who we could see were eyeing up the older boys appreciatively. Our uniforms were fitted tightly and it was obvious they loved to see the cloth stretched over our strong young bodies. It seemed to me that they must have seen that we didn't have any drawers on under our trousers, and I don't think I was the only boy who gave himself a hard-on thinking about the girls getting excited by the thought of our pricks pushing at the cloth of our trousers. Today, if they had known that every single backside that passed them was decorated with stripes of blue and scarlet weals, they would have been even more excited.
All the time, my stinging bottom reminded me of the commander's words: any boy who doesn't smile, or who looks like he's not enjoying the service will get six strokes the moment we get back to the ship. Sitting down renewed the smarting, but generally, by the time we formed up outside the church to march back, only the boys whose bottoms had already been tender from a caning were suffering much discomfort. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, but there was an unpleasant surprise waiting for me.
Back on board, the ship's company was assembled in the gym, and there was the bo'sun with his cane. Someone was going to get it. The commander and other officers entered.
"That was only moderately acceptable," said the commander. "I will not tolerate a poor attitude and we are going to have a demonstration of what happens when a poor attitude gains a foothold in the ship. Every petty officer will nominate the boy from his watch who has shown the poorest attitude this morning, and each nominated boy will receive six strokes across the gun. And then we can all go to dinner. Petty Officer Ronson?"
"1078 Waites, sir."
"1078 Waites. Go and get ready. Petty Officer Pratchett?"
"2360 England, sir."
The blood was roaring in my ears and I hardly heard the commander order me to go and get ready, but somehow I marched across the gym and out into the changing room, where Waites was already naked and pulling on a pair of the thin white cotton punishment trousers. I knew better than to try and argue. I had realised many weeks before that punishment didn't really depend on deserving. Every boy was caned, and now it was my turn.
I pulled my tunic and vest over my head. kicked off my Sunday shoes, unbuttoned my trousers, pushed them down and stepped out of them. The petty officer who was in charge of the changing room cast a brief glance over my body and then threw me a pair of the thin cotton trousers. I pulled them on and tied the cord at my waist. They were slightly too small for me so that they were pulled tight over my rear end. They would provide no protection at all from the cane: their only function was to preserve modesty, though that was invariably dispensed with when it suited the officers. Watson wasn't the only boy I had seen paraded before the whole ship's company with nothing on and mercilessly flogged across the naked buttocks.
By now the other boys who were going to be caned had marched out of the gym and were stripping off. There weren't enough punishment trousers for everyone so some poor devils would have to wait there in the nude till we earlier victims had been beaten. Waites was marched into the gym and in a little while I heard the cracking of the cane across his backside. All too soon he was back from his session across the gun. Although he had taken it bravely enough, his face was now twisted with the agony and his hands clutched at himself.
Pratchett appeared at the door and called my number and name. I stepped forward, my heart pounding. "Now then, you little cunt," he whispered to me. "Let's see how you enjoy a real flogging." And then I had to march the immense distance from the door to the monstrous gun, climb on to the platform and stand ready with the front of my trousers touching the breech.
"2360 England, showing a poor attitude, six strokes. Bend over."
I stretched myself along the barrel and my wrists and ankles were fastened. I could hear my heart beating against the cold metal of the barrel and it seemed as though my breathing had stopped.
"2360 England ready for punishment, sir."
"Carry on, bo'sun."
I felt the tip of the cane just touch me on the right buttock and then with an almighty singing CRACK! it sliced into me. The breath was knocked out of me as a cry of pain was wrenched from my throat and my torso reared up off the cold metal of the gun; then, before I could recover, the second lashed into me, almost across the same line of flesh and the agony doubled; then the third, intolerable, ripping pain across the full width of my bottom. But then I had reached a kind of plateau of pain and the rest disappeared into the general intensity of the torture.
"2360 England, punishment complete, sir."
"Very well, bo'sun. Turn him loose."
My first caning across the gun was over and I limped away into the changing room where Waites was already naked again and inspecting the spectacular weals across his bottom in the mirror. The next boy went in to be caned. My trousers were pulled off me and given to the next boy in the line. Carefully, I dressed again, feeling that this level of pain would never diminish and that my backside must be scarred for life. It seemed no time at all before all twelve of us had been to the gun and every watch had supplied a victim for the bo'sun's cane.
Sitting down to Sunday lunch was a terrible extension of the punishment and my weals took a full fortnight to fade – and by that time Pratchett's strap had done further service across my backside.