I never really settled to the life of the ship, but I came to tolerate it. The lessons were quite different from those at either of the schools I had been to. I learned to row and to dress sails, to knot ropes of different thicknesses and to calculate wind and water speeds. It didn't take the officers long to work out that I was a reasonably intelligent boy and I think that saved me from many beatings that the other inmates had to put up with. I learned to identify various kinds of sailing vessel, most of which were no longer to be seen anywhere at sea, and I learned to swab and holystone decking until it shone.
I also learned how to lie to those in authority while sticking by my watch-mates; how to steal, to gamble, to swear, how to fight so that there were no marks for the officers to see; how to dream about smoking cigarettes and drinking beer; how to talk about girls and what I would do with them when I got the chance, and to masturbate, on my own and with other boys. Of course, most of these things were strictly forbidden and even a suspicion would have been enough to earn a trip to the gun. Nevertheless, we regularly got into bed together and took turns to shove our erections between each other's thighs and rub them to and fro till something came.
In the nearly two years that I was at HMS Implacable I was caned over the gun a total of fourteen times. If that sounds like a lot, you only have to compare it to what the Quint brothers got. Hardly a week went by without one or both of them being hauled up in front of the whole ship's company and the cane lashed into them.
The worst floggings I ever saw were when they absconded. They were quickly recaptured and sentenced to be flogged over the gun – and so was Pratchett for allowing them to escape. I was quite surprised at this further evidence that even petty officers were not immune from caning.
The younger brother was flogged first. Stripped – no modesty allowed for absconders – he lowered himself over the breech of the gun and was fastened in place. His bottom was slim and tightly muscled and his legs were visibly trembling. The whole of his buttocks were marked with stripes of purple bruise from a three-day-old caning.
"1921 Quint, ready for punishment, sir," announced the bo'sun.
"Absconding. Twelve strokes. Carry on, bo'sun."
And then came the appalling shock. Out of a green baize bag the bo'sun now drew a birch. It was even longer than the one my friends back home had been flogged with by the coppers and by the time the birching was over Quint's bottom was a raw mass of cuts and the blood ran down to his knees.
Then his older brother was birched. Since it was obvious that it must have been him who was responsible for planning the escape, he received two dozen strokes with a fresh birch. When it was finished it was hard to see any unbroken skin anywhere on his strong, lean buttocks. The first dozen or so brought increasingly terrible cries rasping from his throat, but the last few he took in silence and many of us watching thought that he had passed out. But when the bo'sun declared the punishment complete and he was untied, he staggered to his feet and limped out of the gymnasium with his face set into an awful glare.
Then Pratchett was caned. Twenty-four strokes over his normal trousers, which he took, to the astonishment of the whole company, in complete silence. That night we all saw that he too had bled from the cuts made by the terrible cane.
I had no hope of reprieve or rescue. Boys did not receive visitors. My uncle chose not to write to me and there was no one else who appeared to care what was happening to me, so I had to make the best of it. I grew strong and tall. My chest filled out and the muscles in my arms and legs were hard. My voice broke; I discovered that tossing off now produced a spurt of white sperm and I grew a luxuriant fringe of black hair above my penis.
Pratchett went off to the navy and his place was taken by Quint, only six weeks after being birched for absconding. He celebrated by making the whole watch bend naked over the ends of our beds. He gave every backside a thorough strapping and then ordered Clarke to get into bed with him and buggered him.
Only three months later, Quint also went off to the navy and his place was taken by Ronson. He also celebrated his elevation to petty officer by strapping the whole watch across our bare backsides and buggering the youngest boy.
Twice more the whole ship's company marched to church with smarting bottoms, and both times a boy from every watch was caned over the gun when we returned.
There would be no point in my describing every time I was beaten. Mostly they were routine offences, or merely the whim of one of the officers. Usually just six strokes; sometimes anything up to a dozen; indescribably painful, but, in the end, not important. But my worst punishment was something to remember, not merely for the agony of it, but also for the effect it had on my companions in suffering.
At the edge of the parade ground was a mast like those you used to get on ships. It was over a hundred feet tall and had three yard-arms and rigging just like a ship. Usually a flag, or several flags, flew from this mast and there was a ceremony every evening when the flags were piped down to the shrill of the petty officers' whistles.
Additionally, this mast was the site for a drill which struck terror into the hearts of some boys, but which I always found exciting and strangely moving. On special occasions the whole ship's company, all twelve dozen boys, was required to climb the rigging and take up their stations along the yards, and up the ratlines, until, at a signal from the bo'sun, all of us had to let go of our holds on the ropes and stand at attention with our arms folded while God Save the King was played. Each watch had to take turns at climbing to the highest yards. Some boys could never become accustomed to the height and had to be forced up the rigging with blows of their petty officer's strap. Any boy who moved during the playing of the National Anthem, naturally, suffered over the gun that evening.
For me this was the highlight – one of the very few – of my existence. From high on the mast I could see away over the town and out over the Sound to the Breakwater with its promise of far away places where I would no longer be punished for the merest nothing. I longed to be picked for the highest honour on these occasions. This was to stand on the very summit of the mast, right on the button, where there were no ropes to hold, only a stay that you gripped with your knees. This boy was required to stand there, arms out straight while the anthem was played. Afterwards, if he had carried out his duty satisfactorily, he was rewarded with a half-crown.
I had every hope of being picked for this honour sooner or later, because there weren't many boys who wanted to do it, or were thought capable. It was one of the very few duties at HMS Implacable that you had to volunteer for, rather than being flogged into doing.
My friends could not understand why I wanted to do this. Some thought it was just for the half-crown, others thought I was a horrible show-off, others still said that there was no way in the world that I could do it.
The leader of these was a chap called Gregg in our watch, who always had to be driven up even to the lowest yard-arm. At last, goaded by his taunts and the others who backed him up, I made a fatal move.
"I bet I could do it any time." At this Ronson pricked up his ears.
"I'll bet you," he said. "I'll bet you my dick up your arse that you can't get out there now and stand on the button for a minute."
"You're on," I said, holding out my hand, and almost immediately regretted it as he seized my hand and pumped it up and down.
We waited till we had heard the ship's clock strike midnight and then the whole watch crept out of bed and down the stairs. It wasn't unknown for boys to go on nocturnal prowls like this and it was well known that the doors weren't locked. The night seemed cold, but I was determined.
My friends, Mortimer and Grey, wished me luck and I started to climb. It was easy as far as the final stretch of bare mast. I had been up here many times and I loved it. I seemed to get clear of the ground and all the pains and difficulties of life on the ship and I gloried in my strength and suppleness. Before I started on the last bit of the climb I looked down. It was a moonlit night and I could see the rest of the watch standing looking up at me. I shinned up the last ten feet or so of mast, my bare feet gripping easily the smooth wood.
I gripped the button that was my goal. It was about a foot across and the metal stay that I would have to grip with my knees provided all the handholds I needed to climb up on to it. I got the top of the stay between my knees, gripped it hard and spread out my arms. It felt as though I was flying. Large parts of the city were dark, but I could still see the lights of people up late and the street lamps in the busiest streets. Out to sea ships at anchor were carrying red and green riding lights. I never wanted to come down.
"That boy. Get down here this instant!"
"Oh _f_u_c_k_!" It was the bo'sun, and now I was in deep trouble. I took my time. All too soon I would be down and facing the music, but meanwhile I would make the moment last as long as I could.
The rest of the watch had been sent back to bed and I faced the bo'sun alone. He didn't say a great deal, but what he did was mostly about how much he was going to enjoy flogging the backside off me the next day. He marched me to the cells, little chambers in the basement, where hardened offenders were imprisoned for extra punishment. I slept uneasily on the hard wooden board that was all the bed provided. But in spite of the terrible discomfort, I felt elated. I had done it. I had stood on the very top of the mast in the darkness and experienced the freedom of the open air.
Next morning, without any breakfast, I was paraded in front of the commander, my hair newly shaved off and my kit as spotless as I could make it. He listened to the bo'sun's version of my crime, his eyes never blinking or moving from my face. I tried to look just above his head so it wouldn't look as though I was staring him out, but I couldn't bring myself to look humble or apologetic. I stood at rigid attention, my hands down the seams of my trousers, in the approved manner.
"I see," he said eventually, after examining me in silence for nearly a minute. "You climbed to the top of the mast?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"On your own?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"In the dark?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"I tell you what, England. You're a braver man than I am. You know you'll have to be caned?"
"Aye aye, sir."
"Very well. 2360 England. Leaving your berth after lights out. Twenty strokes over the bare breech. A dozen each for the rest of the watch, bo'sun."
"Aye aye, sir."
"And England...." He held up in front of his face the large silver disc of a half-crown. "If you tell a soul that I've given you this, there'll be a repeat of your flogging, but it'll be with a birch. Understand?"
"Aye aye, sir." And I was marched back to my cell to await thrashing. The time didn't hang at all heavy. My head was still full of the excitement of my exploit. The only thought that spoiled my euphoria was the thought of that _f_u_c_k_ing cane lashing into my unprotected backside.
When the ship's company was assembled I was marched up to the gymnasium and ordered to strip. Naked, I had to wait while all the other members of the watch were brought out one by one, changed into punishment trousers, taken in to the gun and caned severely. And when they stepped out of the trousers the weals across their backsides were the terrible swollen lacerations that we all knew so well.
At last, I had to face the ship's company and the bo'sun. Word of what I had done had spread round the ship and I was amazed to be greeted with whispers of "Well done," and "Good on you, mate," as I walked between the solid lines of boys.
The bo'sun stood beside the gun as always, the cane flexed ominously between his fists. It looked even longer than usual and my courage almost failed when I saw the look of sheer delight on his face.
I was trussed up to the gun and my crime and sentence were announced. I felt exposed and helpless with over a hundred boys staring at my bare arse.
"Carry on, bo'sun," said the officer.
I felt the cane touching my backside and I relaxed as much as possible. I'd known, ever since prep school, that this was the best way to reduce the sting of a cane, though it wasn't always possible to do it. I heard the cane singing through the air behind me and then it exploded across my rear. There are no words to describe the pain of that first stroke. It sliced right into the core of my being, as though it had cut me in two. I've no idea whether I yelled or not.
I could almost feel the ship's company willing me to take the beating without a sound. They were all on my side, as though I was their representative. The bo'sun planted the succession of burning strokes across the whole of the lower half of my buttocks, and then a couple down low on the tops of my thighs. After ten or so the danger of my yelling was over. The pain was as bad as it could get and it was relatively easy to take the rest. But then the cane started whipping in across already welted and tender flesh and the agony rose to new heights. I had no idea how many I'd been given. I suppose someone was counting aloud as they always did but I couldn't hear them and it seemed as though I'd been tied to the gun for hours and the beating was going to go on for a long while still.
But then it stopped. There were explosions of acid going off in my poor lacerated bottom and the whole of the lower half of my body seemed to be turned to liquid fire. I was barely conscious of someone untying me and then I forced myself to stand upright and turn away from the gun. The looks in the eyes of all the boys I could see was as good as soothing cool water on my stripes.
"Three cheers for England," called out a voice somewhere to my right.
"Silence there," shouted the bo'sun.
"Hip, hip," came a voice from the left.
"Petty officer, take that boy's name," the bo'sun called out, but he was drowned in the shout of "Hurray," from every boy there.
"Hip, hip." Now from directly in front of me. Petty officers were running up and down looking for the culprits, but it was clear they didn't really want to find them.
"Hurray," came the second shout.
"Hip, hip." Back on the right. Now the bo'sun dived into the lines of boys, but to no avail. He knew, and so did we, that he couldn't cane the whole company.
"Hurray," they all cheered again and for the first time ever in my life for a beating, I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes.
I was hustled out of the gym and ordered to change back into my clothes. I felt humbled and proud of the reception they had given me. Later, I could reflect on this and it seemed to me that there was nothing in the world to compare with the simple, freely given admiration of boys, and I believe it was my great good fortune to be able to win that wherever I went.
The tradition of the half-crown for the button boy didn't stop with the giving. There was also a traditional way of spending it. I was determined that I would also follow this tradition, even though I could tell no one about it, whereas more legitimate button boys boasted about their good fortune and were additionally heroic for it.
Two days after my flogging I presented myself at the commander's office. "Permission to go ashore, sir?"
He knew perfectly well why I wanted to go into the city and his eyes twinkled. His only reservation, I could see, was the fact that I was a good year younger than most button boys. In theory, there was nothing to stop any of us going into town – going ashore, it was called – but in practice none of us had any money.
"Back by five o'clock," he said. "And good luck."
My destination was less than a quarter of a mile from the ship, a rather disreputable road with no shops and only houses of the poorest sort. In most doorways women stood, dressed in light frocks, through which they shivered in the cold wind. I walked down the street trying not to look as though I was eyeing up these women. Some were old enough to be my mother, but others were my age or even younger. At the end I turned round and retraced my steps. I had decided.
She was no more than a year older than me, with dark curls framing a face that would have been beautiful if it wasn't for a scar across the bridge of her nose and one cheek. Her dress was tight over her bosom and waist and my _c_o_c_k_ stiffened at the thought of her body underneath. I stood awkwardly in front of her.
"How much have you got?" she asked.
"Half a crown," I said.
"Come on then." Her voice was not coarse, as I'd expected, but obviously from the country, slightly husky, and very, very sweet. My prick was now ramrod stiff.
She took me by the hand and led me through a narrow entry, down a squalid yard and out of the back gate into a passageway that ran between the backs of the houses. Against the wall she pulled me to her and I kissed her, first on the lips and then her neck. Her fingers were at the buttons of my trousers and as she pushed them down over my backside my _c_o_c_k_ reared up as though rejoicing to be free. She had hoisted her skirts and almost before I knew it she had guided me inside her. I came almost immediately in hot spurts.
"It's your first time, isn't it?" she said softly. I nodded in mortification that my half crown's worth had been so short. "All right, now take your time, nice and easy."
My prick had hardly softened at all and now a little thrusting with my hips brought all its hardness pulsating back. Guided by her I pushed harder and harder till, with a great hot rush I shot another load up into her.
"There," she said. "That was better, wasn't it?" She pushed me away and straightened her dress down over her legs. I was left, trousers round my knees, feeling foolish. I pulled them up, buttoned them and groped for the coin. She took it from me, biting it between her teeth (an action that got my prick back into top condition) and kissed me lightly on my cheek. "You're nice," she said. "I wish you could come again."
Walking back to the ship, my knees felt as though all the strength had drained out of them, and I knew why what I had just enjoyed was called a knee-trembler. It hadn't struck me as being at all sordid, and the thought of her face and the feel of her body against my groin comforted me through many long nights.
There were no holidays or relief from the routine of lessons, work and punishment. Once a year the whole ship's company took part in a cross-country race. I won the race both times that I took part in it. My reward was a bar of chocolate for every boy in my watch. The watch who performed worst was caned. A boy called Turner took the opportunity to attempt to abscond. Like the Quints, his backside was reduced to a quivering mass of raw cuts with the birch.
In the summer there were swimming and rowing races. The rules were the same. The best watch got chocolate; the worst got the cane. My watch accidentally rammed another boat. The rowing instructor had us lined up in the boat-shed and gave us a dozen crackers each with his cane – mercifully smaller than the bo'sun's.
And every August the whole ship's company went on manoeuvres. This meant that we were taken out into Cornwall in a lorry and dumped thirty miles from base. Each watch then had to make their way overland back to the ship, living off the land. Again there were prizes for the first watch to return – and every boy had to get back to win the prize – and the last to return were, predictably, caned
For many boys with was a frightening ordeal; for others, including me, it was a huge adventure that we looked forward to as the only relief from the ship's regime that we were ever going to get. Each of us carried a letter from the ship's commander inviting any farmer or householder who caught a boy stealing to apply to the navy for compensation and to give the thief as severe a dose of corporal punishment as they thought fit.
Interestingly, in both of the years I took part in the exercise I was never beaten, despite being caught several times. Most farmers on the likely routes back to Devonport knew what life was like in the training ships and felt sorry for the poor little buggers who had to put up to it. The nearest I came was when a farmer near Liskeard had me in the loft where we'd stayed the night draped over a bale of hay with my trousers round my ankles. But when he lifted up my shirt for the leathering to be applied the sight of the weals across my bum stayed his hand and we were sent on our way with enough provisions to keep us going all the way back to the ship.
The second time, when Ronson was the petty officer in charge of the watch, the exercise was particularly memorable. Ronson was determined to win and had had five years experience to fall back on in planning the route. The problem was that the most obvious routes were patrolled and likely to lead to capture. So instead of setting off towards the Tamar, Ronson led us south till we hit the coast.
There, in a little fishing village, we spotted just what we had been looking for. A fishing boat with sails that we would be able to handle. We hid until darkness gave us the chance we needed. By the time the owner of the boat realised it was gone we were halfway to Plymouth.
We tied up at the training ship's quay a full day and a half ahead of the next watch to finish. The commander was well-impressed, but clearly the theft of the fishing boat would have to be paid for. We were given a slap-up meal, the likes of which none of us had seen since being sentenced, including as much beer as we could drink with it. Our other, more usual, prize was to be awarded publicly when all the teams were back, but the next morning the twelve of us had to parade in the gym, stripped off for punishment. The bo'sun called us forward one by one to the gun, invited us to bend over the breech and applied fifteen strokes with a small whippy cane to our bare bottoms.
I could see that this was not one of the monumental thrashings that were normally handed out and when my turn came I stretched myself along the gun and accepted the caning without a qualm. It hurt a lot, about the same as a beating from the brigadier, and left thin hard weals across our bottoms, but it was still a pretty soft punishment.
When it came to Ronson's turn, however, the bo'sun picked up the bigger cane and applied eighteen strokes, full force, to his strong meaty backside, which made him cry out after the first eight or nine strokes.