The school my father sent me to was a sleepy little boarding school in Devon. There were about 150 of us boys, aged between eleven and eighteen. It was run by Mr Langhorne, a doddery old man who seemed to me to be about seventy years old.
I loved being away at school and threw myself into all the games and activities available. I was a mischievous little chap and soon discovered that punishments were a bit more serious than they had been at my primary school – but not much more serious. Six of the older boys were called prefects and they ran the place when we weren't in lessons. I wrote pages of lines, sat in a form-room with my hands on my head doing detentions, and I quickly discovered that they were also allowed to beat our bottoms with a gymshoe.
A slippering stung quite badly, but then the pain rapidly faded to a pleasant warmth and you could forget all about it. This had many advantages over other punishments from my point of view. The main one was that it was over quickly without any precious time being wasted. It also seemed much more manly to bend over and take a whacking than it did to write out that morning's assembly hymn twenty times.
In my first year the worst beating I received was from a prefect called Rhymes who caught me in bed with a boy called Davidson. I didn't understand what we had done wrong – apart from talking after lights out, which I agreed merited a whacking. He took us down to the washroom, lectured us for five minutes, bent us over the towel rail and gave our bottoms – which, of course, were only protected by our thin pyjamas - six real scorchers with a size twelve gymshoe. I was still tingling when I woke up the next morning and was delighted that he'd left two interesting patches of purple bruise on my bum.
Mr Langhorne, the head, caned boys who needed it. Or, rather, having decided that he couldn't do the job as well as he once had, he supervised a caning handed out by the junior gardener, a strapping young chap who obliged in a somewhat embarrassed way. And this gave rise to a catch-phrase that was used continually amongst we boys: "Put some beef into it man, you won't kill him." We never got tired of saying it to each other, and always fell about laughing.
Unfortunately, when I was finally awarded my first dose of the cane at the end of my first year, he actually said it after the gardener had landed the first stroke across my well-protected rear end. (I should mention that it was almost universal to put on rugger shorts to add to pants and trousers when going up for a caning). I was stretched over the back of an armchair and the cane had zipped into me the first time, when he actually said it. Well – who could have stopped himself laughing? And that led to an extra two strokes, which I thought was a bit rich. In the first term of my second year I was caned another twice and was slippered by prefects several times, but there were several of us who seemed to be always in one sort of trouble or another.
But then an event came along that made all the difference. The story was that it happened during the king's Christmas broadcast, but there was no evidence for this. Anyway, Mr Langhorne had a heart attack and died. I was quite sorry; he was a loveable old duffer in his way. We had a service in chapel at which one or two chaps almost blubbed.
For a month things went on their old sweet way with one of the masters taking charge. I don't remember who. But then the new headmaster arrived: Mr Vick. And our lives changed for ever.
Our first sight of him was when he took assembly on his first morning. He was a young man, or at least younger than most of the old chaps who taught us, with fair wavy hair, tall, strong-looking, obviously a sportsman. The kind of man who you would immediately rather like. He announced the hymn, listened to the Bible reading, said the prayers and then addressed us.
"Gentlemen. My aim is to make this school the best in the county. There is a war coming and the country needs strong, fit young men. And the way to make you strong and fit and ready for the challenge is discipline. Things are going to change around here."
And he swept out.
The first change that we noticed was the Activity Rota. Up until then the time between the end of lessons and tea had been free for us to do what we liked in. No longer. I still remember that first rota. Monday – rugger practice; Tuesday – cross-country run; Wednesday – free; Thursday – cross-country run; Friday – gym activities. Saturday afternoons were to be spent either playing games or watching. Sunday afternoon, a compulsory walk.
And then the rumour swept through the school. Vale had been caned. He was a fifth former, so beyond being talked to by we juniors. The number of strokes he'd been given varied according to who told you. But what didn't vary was that it had been on his bare bottom. From my place in the dining hall I could see him about eight tables away. He was a stocky boy with blond hair and a cheeky grin permanently on his face. I tried to see what was different about him, but he looked perfectly normal – laughing even - which I didn't think could be possible after getting twelve – or eight – or even six strokes of a stick across his bare bottom.
Prefects were given the job of ensuring that we did our activities and we discovered that the penalty for missing one was a whacking. I didn't mind the rota too much since I was good at running and enjoyed games of all sorts. Coleford, though, hated it and before the week was out he had been caught skiving in the bogs instead of running. James made him do the run twice, stand under a cold shower for five minutes, and then slippered him. After that we groaned – or pretended to – and did the activities.
That first Saturday, Mr Vick came into lunch after we had finished eating. He was carrying a cane and I suspect every boy's heart pounded a little faster at the sight of it. We all stopped talking and prepared apprehensively to listen.
"Gentlemen, the time has come for me to announce some further changes. I told you that the answer to the school's problems lay with discipline and now I am going to explain what I mean. Firstly, I have been examining the punishment records for the last year and I don't like what I see. There are a number of boys for whom corporal punishment appears to be a joke. Over the next few days I hope to change their attitude radically. For the rest of you life has been far too cosy. The worst that could happen has been a few taps of a gymshoe on your backsides. That is not what I mean by corporal punishment. This –" he held up the cane so we could all see it – "is what I mean by corporal punishment." And he brought it whistling down and it cracked down on the cover of the large billiard table that stood in the middle of the hall. All of us flinched as the loud crack echoed off the high roof. This was a man that meant business.
"From now on the prefects will not be allowed to punish you with a gymshoe." He paused, and I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking that this was good news. "Instead, I have arranged for each prefect to have a cane like this one, and that is what they will use on your backsides when you step out of line.
"Additionally," and I just knew that things were going to get worse and worse, "all punishments – lines, detentions and so on – will be scored: one for 100 lines, three for a detention, one for every stroke of a cane. And any boy who scores more than ten in a week will receive a caning from me." And again he brought the cane hissing down and it cracked on the billiard table like a punctuation.
"As a result of my examination of the punishment books, I shall be sending for several of you and asking you to explain why your disciplinary record is so poor. And if your explanations are not good enough you know what to expect." And he flourished the cane, using it to point round the hall at the crowd of white-faced boys.
I thought he had finished – but no. "Rugman. Who is he?" He was in the fourth form and now stood up. He was a sturdy, curly-haired boy, and he now looked terrified. "You have the worst record in the school, Rugman. I don't believe you can say anything to exonerate yourself, so I intend to deal with you immediately. Step out into the corridor, please."
Rugman left his place and walked through the tables to the door. I thought that a man going to his death on the guillotine must have looked pretty much like that. The head followed him out and we all sat stunned. Less than a minute later we jumped as the first stroke of the cane cracked like a pistol against Rugman's bottom. He was caning him just outside so we could all hear!
As we always did when someone was being whacked we all counted the strokes silently. Rugman yelped after three, and a couple more later he wailed. Six. Everyone heard the terrible yell that came from the boy's throat. We thought it was over. No one ever got more than six.
Ten. Now Rugman was almost howling.
Twelve. "Aagh! Please no more!" We all heard him pleading.
Silence. It was over. Silence. Not a boy dared to speak. The silence stretched to over a minute. Two minutes. No one knew what to do.
And then Rugman came back into the hall. He was scarlet in the face and might have been crying. Slowly, limping a little, he went to his place. A friend placed a hand on his shoulder, and gingerly he sat down, hiding himself in the mass of silent boys.
We thought he'd gone, but then Mr Vick came back into the hall. He was still holding the cane.
"For the rest of this weekend," he announced, "prefects will be on the look-out for boys who break rules. And any rule-breaking – and I mean any rule-breaking – will be punished with the cane." He glared round the hall, seeming to accuse each of us individually of being desperate delinquents, and swept out.
And the difference was apparent immediately. Prefects patrolled the common rooms with canes in their hands, and in the hour before we all had to troop out to watch the first fifteen play their match both Hingston and Sutcliffe were taken off by different prefects for an infraction of some minor rule and came back with their bums tingling. Sutcliffe dropped his pants for us to inspect the damage – three pink lines across the skin of his right buttock.
At the match itself it was hard to get into the to and fro of the play when our minds were full of the danger that we were obviously in. My mates and I were quite close to a group of fourth formers and several times I saw Rugman surreptitiously rubbing his backside. Three first-formers were messing about on the touch-line. Scudder took them into the pavilion and we heard the cane getting to work on their bottoms. After that they behaved themselves.
As we were walking back to school afterwards, Scudder passed the group I was with. "Hands in pockets, Potter," he said. "Wait for me in your dorm."
"But it's cold."
"Are you arguing?"
At the dorm door I took my shoes off, since you weren't allowed in with outdoor shoes on, and then sat on my bed and waited. He didn't make me wait long.
I had to take my jacket off, pull my shirt out of the back of my trousers and stretch over the rail at the bottom of the dorm prefect's bed. It was a good deal higher than our beds and he made me hold the side rails as high up as I could reach so I was well stretched and my bottom was presented perfectly for the punishment.
I had time to think that Vick must have been giving them tips on how to cane boys because before this when getting the slipper it had just been a case of 'touch your toes'. "I'm going to give you three," he said. "And then another one because you argued."
"But I didn't," I protested without shifting from my position.
"And that will be another for arguing still."
I gave up and let my head sink on to the bedspread. There was no way out of this. I wasn't too worried still. Remember, I was quite experienced in being whacked. Indeed, Scudder himself had whacked me several times, I'd had a full six of the best from the gardener, so – how much worse could it be?
I heard Scudder's shoes on the wood of the floor, the cane cracked on the seat of my trousers, and that was all right, when, suddenly, whoosh! Pain flooded across my backside. It was as bad as when Rhymes slippered me in pyjamas but now concentrated into a narrow strip across both buttocks. The second landed a little lower and the pain doubled. The third doubled it again. I could feel the three lines of fire across my skin.
"Now the two for arguing," Scudder said and I sensed him stepping back even further. This time I heard the stick sing through the air and it was like an explosion in my rear end. The last one landed along almost the same line and I think I yelped with the terrible sting of it.
"OK, you can get up," he said. I pushed myself upright. I'd have liked to pass it off as though it was nothing, but my backside felt as though it was going up in flames. I rubbed myself pretty furiously and that made Scudder chuckle. "And how was that?"
"All right," I said, but he could see that it wasn't. He chuckled even more.
"Listen," he said. "I wouldn't say this to every chap in your form, but I think you're a decent sort under all that blasted cheek. Watch yourself. We've had instructions to really lay it across you all this weekend. This chap is mad keen on caning boys, and you don't want to get on the wrong side of him if you can help it."
"Thanks," I said grimly.
"You know the whacking that Rugman got this lunchtime?" I nodded. "That was on his bare arse. We all reckon that he'll cane on the bare backside every time. So be warned. I was there to hold Rugman down, and it wasn't a pretty sight, I can tell you. And it's no use blaming us for what's going on. We've all got quotas. Anyone who hasn't handed out twenty canings by lights out tomorrow is off the prefect's list. And gets a caning of his own from the old man. If I find out you've told anyone else that, I'll take the skin off your arse."
I took my burning rear end down to the common room. There were only a few minutes to tea, I was starving and it was no use crying over a bit of a whacking. I discovered that four others in our common room had been caned since the end of the match. It was impossible. No one could escape getting the stick under a system like this.
After tea on Saturday was always one of the best times of the week. It was more or less free time and we could choose to stay in the common room and read or build models and stuff, or we could go into the dining hall where there was a radio to listen to or sometimes chaps played the piano and everyone sang. Lights out was half an hour later than the rest of the week.
This particular Saturday I was caned twice more before, finally, the day was over. Roper came past the common room just as Engstrand and I were having a bit of an argument about the space his model pLaing was taking up on the table. He said we were shouting and creating a disturbance. He took us up to the washroom and gave us four strokes each. It wasn't as bad as Scudder's whacking but it still left my bum stinging. I tried not to let it dampen the atmosphere of a Saturday night, but it was hard.
The junior forms had to change into pyjamas and dressing gowns before supper on Saturdays, so that's how I was dressed when James caught me running along the corridor in order not to be late. I had to go to his study after supper. He made me take off my dressing gown and bend over the back of his armchair. My bottom was still tingling and he landed all three strokes across the part that was already bruised.
I was still sore at bedtime. We could compare how we had got on and it was clear that only _c_o_c_k_burn and Jones had got through the whole day without a dose of the stick. Engstrand had been whacked six times and Sutcliffe and Springer five each. Their bottoms were a mass of criss-crossed bruises. There was a good deal of grumbling and muttering – and that was hardly unexpected. It all just seemed so unfair. Sunday was going to be a real ordeal.
At breakfast Mr Vick appeared again. "Gentlemen. The drive for better discipline is going well. Having examined yesterday's punishment records I can now set you clearer targets. Your punishments, let me remind you, are being scored. Tomorrow morning any boy who has scored more than twenty will be explaining himself to me in my study. Six boys have already exceeded that target. They are Hatheredge from the fourth form; Parsons and Schofield from the third, and Engstrand, Springer and Sutcliffe from the second. Those six will go now and line up outside my study."
In a deathly silence, the six condemned men left their tables and walked out. Mr Vick followed them. It was over an hour and we were all getting ready to go to church when the three from our common room returned. They had been given six strokes apiece with their pants down. I had never seen such weals on a boy's bottom before. They were thick swollen lines across both buttocks, each one a tram-line with a white centre to it. They were dark purple and black and in places it looked as though there was blood just below the surface. But none of them could answer the question, What was it like? Indescribable – but we could all imagine the pain and the humiliation of a beating like this.
Everyone was very careful for the rest of the day. Even so, prefects' canes were still busy filling up their quotas. We were supposed to walk down to church and back again in silence. No one ever did that, and no one ever bothered about it. Today, up and down the High Street, orders to report to a prefect's study echoed up and down the line. Davidstow and I were caught talking almost before we were out of the churchyard. We had to report to James. He gave us three whacks, not hard but still enough to make my bottom tingle as we went into lunch.
The Sunday afternoon walk had long been a feature of our lives. The only difference now was that it was compulsory. I went with _c_o_c_k_burn and Davidson and Engstrand. We mooched around down by the river. It was cold so we didn't linger. Behind an old barn Engstrand showed us his backside again. The weals were still swollen – he let us touch them – and he said the pain was still worse than for any whacking he'd had before. He told us how it was done. You had to let down your trousers and pants and bend right over the back of the same armchair as when the gardener was caning you. Then he lifted your shirt up over your back and did it. We made sure that we were back on time for tea, but not before the time decreed.
As I walked into tea I was beginning to feel almost confident that I was going to get away with it. I'd had fifteen strokes of the cane since yesterday. Which meant that I would have to be whacked another twice to reach twenty, and I reckoned I could manage to avoid that without difficulty, especially as most of the prefects had now reached their quota and were going a bit easier.
Unfortunately, James hadn't. He spotted the mud on my shoes – you were supposed to clean them immediately you got back from the walk – so I had to go to his study again. I bent over his chair and he gave me three of the softest strokes of a cane I'd ever had. But they still counted. Eighteen. Now I would have to be careful. I was and there were no more incidents, and I went to bed happy.
At the end of breakfast the list of delinquents who were off to have their bare bums whipped was read out by Prince, the head prefect. All of us listened with intense interest. There were some surprises. Laing, in the fifth form, was not a regular tearaway; Vale was up for his second dose; so was Rugman in the fourth form. Incredibly, Schofield in the third form was named for his second dose in two days. There were seven third formers, and then he'd reached our form. "Davidson, Dickson, Davidstow, Grey, Henderson, Hingston, Mortimer, Potter ....."
What? Me? But I hadn't reached twenty. There was some mistake. How could it be that I was up for a caning when I'd only got eighteen?
He finished reading the list and then we had to get up and walk out with everyone watching and pitying us. I couldn't very well go up to Prince and say there'd been a mistake, I shouldn't be getting the stick – not in front of everyone. So I had to go along with the rest.
The old man met us outside his study and made us line up down the passage – oldest at the front, youngest at the back. I tried putting my hand up to tell him I shouldn't be there, but he just snapped at me to get into line and do as I was told. We had to wait in silence and I can tell you that my insides were jumping about like a nest of snakes. The first fifth-former went inside and after a bit the sound of the cane echoed down the passage, followed after only a couple of strokes, by the sound of the boy yelling. We all counted the cracks, and just knowing that it was the sound of rattan cane against bare flesh, just made it worse. Six! Grey and I mouthed, "Six!" silently to each other. The boy came out, his hands rubbing at the back of his trousers. His name was Freeman. I didn't know him really.
All the fifth-formers got six – even Laing, who was never in trouble; and Vale who'd been caned less than a week ago. Some of them came out bravely, only the whiteness of their faces showing the effort it was not to show that they were in absolute agony. Vale's yells were really loud – and none of us could blame him for that. I couldn't imagine what his backside must look like.
Then it was the turn of the fourth-formers. Four of them. Rugman was the last and I have never seen a boy looking so sick at the thought of a whacking. He was practically blubbing before he went in. The door closed behind him; there was silence for two minutes or more, and then the caning started. His howls of agony could have been heard half a mile away and when he came out he was in a terrible state: tears running down his face, hands clutching at his arse, hardly able to walk properly. I'd have felt sorry for him if I wasn't lined up to get the same treatment – though there was still a hope in the back of my mind that I was going to be let off.
Seven third-formers. They all got six too. Devey managed to take all six without a sound – at least not that we could hear from out in the passage. I was dead impressed. The others yelled, though. Schofield was last. From the way he shouted he must have been landing the cane across the same place as yesterday.
All this was taking a good deal of time. It was past the time for school to start. In fact, we should have been in geography by now. But it seemed that nothing mattered but thrashing the _s_h_i_t_ out of us.
Davidson, the first second-former, went in. Six! We were all going to get the same. Slowly I was inching closer to the door. Davidstow – tried to grin at us when he came out. Grey – big strong lad, but yelled like the rest. Henderson – just a trace of a tear in his eyes as he limped down the passage. Hingston – prided himself on taking the stick without crying out; but he did this time. Mortimer – a blond boy who I couldn't stand. And I was standing right outside now. It was me next.
How could I keep my mind clear enough to count the cracks of the cane across Mortimer's backside when it was going to be mine next? I knew already that there was nothing I could do to get out of this, even if I hadn't really scored over twenty. I was going to be caned across my naked bottom just the same.
Mortimer came out, his hands rubbing the seat of his trousers as though a swarm of bees had got in there. "Next," came the voice of doom from inside – and in I had to go.
He was standing in front of the desk holding the cane down by his side and his eyes seemed to bore right through me as I stood there on the carpet in front of him with my hands clasped behind my back and the blood pounding in my ears so loudly that I thought I was going to pass out.
"Ah, yes. You wanted to say something to me?" I was puzzled. How did he know? "You put your hand up outside."
"Yes, sir. I haven't – please, sir – I only got eighteen, please, sir." What a hash I had made of it. Where was my passionate plea for mercy?
"Have you? Let me see." He picked up the book, flicked pages till he came to my page. "No. There's no mistake. Five from Scudder for having your hands in your pockets and arguing about the punishment; four from Roper for causing a disturbance in your common room; three from James for running in the corridor, which scored double because you were in your pyjamas –" I almost wept. Scored double! And just because I was in pyjamas. "Aha! I see we've identified the difficulty. I make your score a full twenty-two, and that is worth a thrashing in my book. I see from Mr Langhorne's punishment book that you have been caned before."
"Then you know the procedure. Jacket off. Then bend right over the back of the armchair. With your trousers and underpants down, please."
This was the moment. I knew the cane was going to be possibly the most painful thing in my life, and I was prepared for that. But nothing could prepare me for the dread of deliberately letting down my pants and bending over. I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes as I went to the chair. I removed my jacket and lay it over one of the arms of the chair. And then there was no putting it off any longer. I undid my belt. I unbuttoned my fly. I pushed my trousers down over my bottom. I let them fall to the floor. I pushed my pants down too. They wouldn't fall down like my trousers had. I had to stoop to push them down to my knees. Then they fell to the floor. I reached over the chair. I held on to the ends of the arms. I was ready.
"No. I want you bending tighter than that. Get your head right down on the seat."
I did as I was told. The muscles on the backs of my thighs stretched. The smell of the leather filled my nostrils. I could feel my buttocks pulled apart slightly. My shirt-tail was lifted high over my back. I knew that my bottom carried the evidence of the canings I had had. The skin tingled at the memory of them and in anticipation of what was now imminent. I felt the cane touching me. Just below the middle of my bottom.
"Keep still. You may stand up after six. Try not to cry out."
I tried to be ready, to anticipate. But nothing could have prepared me for the lash of that first stroke. It was like red-hot wire being pressed into the meat of my bum and held there and held there. I'm sure I yelled though every other sense impression was swamped by the appalling pain. It was as though it was so much greater than what I could cope with that every nerve in my body was pressed into service to deal with it.
Impossibly, the second seemed to double the pain. How the _f_u_c_k_ can I hold still for six like this? was the only thought racing across my mind. Hold on, hold on, hold on, my mind said, while my bottom was saying, Get up; run away; stop him from doing this.
The third was the lowest so far, right across the strip that we all agreed was where it hurt worst. It felt like a knife slicing into me. Hold on, hold on, hold on. You're halfway through it. Oh _f_u_c_k_! is that all?
CRACK! The fourth lashed in across my bum, right on the same line as the previous one. Strangely, it was the first that I had actually heard the impact with my poor flesh. It was also the first one when I heard my strange strangled cry as I wrestled with myself to stay bending over the chair. All thought of taking it bravely, was just a pathetic fantasy.
The fifth was a little higher, but it still ratcheted up the agony another few notches beyond anything I had believed was possible. One to go; one to go. Hold on, hold, hold on.
I could feel the smooth cane touching my burning skin. The pause was the longest yet and then it came whipping into me. I heard it singing and then the crack like a pistol as it exploded down across all the previous stripes, awakening every last ounce of pain that was in them.
That's it, my mind said. You've done it. But I didn't get up. I lay there thinking how the cane had sliced my life in two. I could never be the same boy again after this. I could never again be the boy that my mum had waved off from the station only five short weeks ago.
"Get up, boy." Not even my name, I noticed. I was 'boy' now. I clambered upright and somehow achieved the impossible task of pulling up my pants and trousers. I put on my jacket and faced him. He held out his hand and, like a zombie, I shook it.
Walking felt like something I had never done before. I had to force my feet to move across the carpet and then I was out in the passage, looking at the scared faces of Springer and the two first-formers. I tried desperately hard not to limp, and I felt quite proud of the self-control that stopped me from rubbing at the appalling agony in my rear end till I was out of sight.
But I could never again be the carefree, mischievous little boy I'd been till this morning. Now, life was serious, and those lackadaisical nonsenses that had got me into trouble before would now mean a seriously lacerated backside. Things, as Mr Vick had said, were going to have to change.
I wish I could say that this caning had taught me the ultimate lesson and that I never needed to be beaten again. Life just isn't like that, is it?