Matthew Gray was a worried boy. He knocked the commander's door, his heart pounding and a feeling of sickness welling up in his guts.
"Come in." He opened the door and stepped inside. He had been hoping and praying that his father wouldn't be there. He was sure that he would ten times rather have the extra whacking than the humiliation of being caned in front of his father.
Commander Hicks was standing behind his desk, and there, on the other side of the fireplace, sitting in a large leather armchair, was Mr Gray, the expression on his face inscrutable, but somewhere between anger and tears. Matthew saw him, the colour rushed into his face and he felt that at any moment he would cry, terrible tears of shame and misery. The commander indicated that he should stand in front of the desk and he took up his position.
On the desk between them all the papers were squared away neatly into piles, but open in front of the commander was the punishment book, open, he could see to his page where the writing almost reached the bottom. And there, lying across all the neat business that the desk represented, were two canes. One a stout bamboo, over three feet long and over half an inch thick. The other a thin, whippy-looking rattan with a hooked handle – the conventional punishment cane.
"Now, Gray," the commander began. "Your father and I would like you to explain all these punishments that you've had this term."
The interrogation seemed to go on for ever. He had been whacked fourteen times since Christmas and now he had to revisit every one of them, telling the headmaster why he had been awarded the beating, how many whacks he had had, what he had been beaten with, what he was wearing, why he had deserved it – all in exhaustive detail. And all the time, as he recited each shameful detail, he could feel his father's eyes on him. He dared not look at his father. He knew that if he did he would break down in tears, and that would make everything ten, twenty times worse. The only way to get through this was to preserve some dignity, to take what was coming bravely. To show his father that there was still some courage and decency in him.
The commander saved the worst till last. In PT Madman Donnelly had paddled his bare bottom because he had grabbed Jones's bollocks who had been doing the lesson in the nude because his shorts were dirty. Matthew felt his face burning as he was forced to describe what he had done and how Petty Officer Donnelly had given him six slaps of the wooden paddle with nothing on. Everyone got the paddle from Madman. That's why he was called Madman. But to have it written down – and to have to admit to his father – that he had been beaten for indecency seemed like the final disgrace. Tears dribbled from his eyes and he hung his head, feeling utterly wretched.
"Well," said the commander, "this is a pretty disgraceful catalogue, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," Mathew admitted.
"Do you want to say anything, Mr Gray?"
"No." Matthew was too sunk in humiliation to notice the dejection in his father's voice. If he had dared to look at him he would have seen that his father too was on the verge of tears.
"Very well. I'm sure I can rely on you to drive home the message that Matthew cannot go on behaving in this way. You deserve to be caned, Gray, don't you?"
"Because your work and behaviour have, until now, been very good, I propose to cane you less severely than I might have done. You should regard this punishment as a warning. If you ever come before me in the future I shall not be so lenient. I intend to give you nine good cuts. Go to the chair there in the window; take your jacket off and pull your shirt out of the back of your trousers; kneel on the seat; bend over the back of the chair and hold the rail."
Matthew turned and there was the chair where he was going to be thrashed. Slowly he walked across the room to it, his heart pounding harder and his stomach twisting inside him. The only relief was that he had not been ordered to let his trousers down. It was that, almost more than the pain of the beating, that had been gnawing at him. At least he wouldn't have to strip his backside in front of his father.
He was a tall, solidly-built boy, a natural for the scrum at rugby. He loved all games and was good at them, but it was the rugby field where he felt most alive and at home. He trained hard and was very fit. There wasn't an ounce of fat on his body and now that his voice had started to break his muscles were also starting to develop. His shoulders were broad and his chest was filling out. He hoped before long to be allowed to wear long trousers. His legs protruding from his shorts were sturdy, his thighs almost filling them and his calves, where his socks were in permanent danger of falling to his ankles, were strong and beginning to round out.
He took off his jacket and lay it over the back of the chair. Awkwardly he pulled his shirt free at the back. Then with his hands on the chairback he climbed on to it, braced his knees apart on the rather hard cushion and lowered himself into position. Although this was the first time the commander had caned him, every boy in the school had heard about how you had to bend over for one of his beatings, so he knew what to expect. The rail was down near the floor so that he was bent over tightly with his backside high. He gripped it and the weight of his upper body was resting on his hands. He looked at the edge of the carpet and the polished wooden floor beyond it.
The commander had stood and come round the desk holding the longer, thinner cane. The boy was ready. Although he was still quite slim in the hips, his bottom filled out his trousers, stretching them satisfactorily over the target area. He strode purposefully across the room and quickly secured the boy's shirt clear of the waistband of his trousers. He stepped back a little, a couple of strides. This was the tenth boy he had caned in the last two days. His eye was in and he knew the spot on the carpet where his run up needed to start. He pointed the cane at the point on the boy's bottom where he wanted it to land, just below the mid-point, where he always landed the first cut.
He glanced briefly at Mr Gray, who was sitting motionless, giving no signal, deep in his armchair. Then he swept his arm back, bending his elbow, _c_o_c_k_ing his wrist and threw himself into the first cut, dancing through the two strides, whipping the cane in, fast and hard, aiming for a spot somewhere beyond the boy's spine. It landed inch perfect, square across both buttocks, the tip flicking round to catch him on the outward curve of his right buttock. The boy yelped sharply when the pain bit, a few seconds after the crack of the cane. But by then he was back at the starting point, already taking aim for the second cut. Again he skipped in, whipping the cane through his shoulder, landing it with maximum force less than half an inch below the first. The boy gasped but made no other sound.
Slowly and remorselessly, the strokes were delivered. Each one was half an inch lower than the one before, driving the pain deep into the muscles of the boy's bottom, a band of fire that widened slowly but surely until it covered completely the lower half of both buttocks. Six strokes were given like that. Matthew felt as though the pain in his rear end could not possibly get any worse. It was like acid eating away at his flesh. But he had taken some of the strokes in silence, and he had taken six. Surely now the worst was over.
But the commander had other ideas. In a beating like this the first six cuts served only to lay a foundation on which the remainder could work. He stepped back to his starting point – and then back another step and a little to his left. He swung the cane back, but this time higher, over his shoulder, held it, poised. Then skipped in, lashing the cane down, a singing blur, and CRACK! It connected with the boy's backside – perfect – diagonal – top left to bottom right – the last inch flicking him low down under his bottom, on his right thigh. The boy yelled, and for the first time he wriggled over the chairback, unable any longer to hold still.
The next was identical, landing on the exact same line, driving the agony deeper. The boy howled and started to struggle up from his bending position but then remembered and recovered. The third hit him along the same horrifyingly painful line for a third time, and now his cry was a terrible wail and the two men had no idea how he managed to lie still. But he remained bending, his bottom now a mass of fire.
The commander went back to his desk, laying the cane where he had picked it up from. He went round the desk and sat down.
"You may get up now," he said, and the boy heaved his torso back upright with a superhuman effort. Obviously suffering, he clambered off the chair, staggered a little, then stood all right. He took his jacket from the chairback and put it on. Only then did his hands go to his bottom. He stood just in front of the chair, waiting for further instructions. "I hope that will be a good lesson for you, Gray," said the commander.
"Yes, sir," Matthew said, his voice husky. His back straightened. His hands went down to his sides. There was no trace of a tear now.
"Mr Gray, do you wish to say anything before you take Matthew home?"
"No, commander. I will be having words with him when we get there."
"I trust I can rely on you to reinforce today's little lesson?"
"Certainly." Matthew's dad stood up and Matthew dared to look at him for the first time since he had entered the study. The expression was unreadable. He couldn't tell what was in store for him.
In silence they left the study, silently drove away from the school. Matthew could feel each of the separate weals across his bottom burning beneath him against the padded car seat. It was an hour before either of them spoke.
"How are you feeling now?"
"All right," said Matthew. He had convinced himself that his father was also going to beat him when they got home. He wouldn't commit himself.
"And how are you feeling really?"
"Terrible," said Matthew.
"Me too," said his dad.