Five stars, six stripes

The hotel’s General Manager canes his bright young assistant.

She’d sorted the forms, as usual, into the order he preferred. A girl’s profile came first, printed onto yellow paper: date of birth, length of service, department, grade – the very basics of her existence within the hotel hierarchy. Then, neatly attached – with a paper clip, mind, never stapled – came each of the three reports that had occasioned that afternoon’s forthcoming encounter. Sorted chronologically, the details of the offence that had led to her first misconduct mark, followed by the second and the fateful third.

He liked the girls’ details presented alphabetically by surname, inside a plain blue card folder, which she placed, as always, on the leather surface of the desk in his suite. It was two in the afternoon now; he’d soon be emerging from his weekly conference call with head office, which rarely left him in the best of moods. The girls – four of them this week – were due outside at three. Sharp.

Georgina paused, looking down at the folder. A moment, turning into a minute. The same routine she’d completed every week since her promotion to the post of executive assistant to the general manager of the Royal International Hotel. His ‘right hand woman’, his ‘help in time of need’, his ‘number one ally’, as he described her.

Only there was one difference. For, this week, her own details were recorded within the sheaf of papers.

The protocol was clearly explained to all new employees, before they even joined. The selection process was notoriously difficult to navigate: “you only came second in the year at your country’s top hotel school?”, “the hotel at which you currently work wasn’t listed in the world’s top 100 last year?”, “pray why did you take on work experience at a four star?”

It was presumably why the Royal garnered such accolades, swept the board at so many awards ceremonies. Take on the very best staff, reward them handsomely, and offer that prestigious line on their résumé which would forever open career doors around the globe.

Oh, that – and the policy of ensuring that any shortcomings in performance were addressed as a matter of the highest priority. Even the tiniest slip was noted, discussed by a line manager, treated as an ‘opportunity to learn’. For those in their first three years on the staff, the consequences went further. Should any error be repeated, or be deemed particularly serious, or should the employee’s attitude to the problem be insufficiently penitent, then a ‘misconduct mark’ would be recorded on the hotel’s computer system, remaining for a year before expiry.

And every Monday morning, any young lady who had reached her third misconduct mark would receive a letter in her pigeonhole, an ever-so-polite invitation to a ‘little discussion’ with the general manager that afternoon. Not that she would need to be ‘invited’, of course: she would have thought of little else in the preceding days. Nor would she dare to decline his offer to meet.

Georgina’s fateful conversation had taken place the previous Friday evening, when she’d tidied the papers on her desk before her weekend off, uncovering the handwritten note from a certain Herr Mantz, which had arrived via the head concierge the previous afternoon. A regular guest – favourite suite number 2501, only Gordon’s gin with his tonic in the executive lounge – and a member of the Royal’s exclusive VIP Club. He’d wished to inform the general manager (“My dear Matthew”) of a few “minor irritations” that he’d experienced during his current stay, and “would be grateful to you for a call before I depart for Geneva tomorrow.”

Panicking at her forgetfulness, Georgina quickly signed back on to the hotel system, checking Herr Mantz’s details.

“Before I depart?” Departed, already, as she’d immediately feared. He’d checked out early that morning, apparently – according to the front desk manager, who’d seen him leave in the foulest of moods. No doubt he’d been wondering what had been so important as to keep “dear Matthew” from his complaint.

It was therefore with some trepidation that she passed the letter across to the general manager at the end of their afternoon meeting. He’d known how to deal with the situation, naturally. “You should call Bouchard in Geneva and arrange for a couple of bottles – no, make that a case – of vintage Bollinger to be couriered to Herr Mantz’s residence this evening, with a note explaining that ‘Mr James is so sorry not to have spoken with you before you left this morning, and would welcome your call at any time.’“

“Of course, sir.” Trust Matthew – Mr James, as she kept reminding herself she should call him – to know how to calm troubled waters.

He frowned. “And one other thing, Georgina.”

“Yes, sir?” She knew already that he would tell her that he was disappointed in her, when disappointing him was the last thing she would ever want to do.

“I am not in the habit of being rude to any of our guests, and the care of our most important visitors is a matter of particular importance to me. You should know that.”

“Yes, sir. I do. I don’t know what happened. I’m so sorry.”

“You will record a misconduct mark on your file before you leave this evening.”

But… Her world stopped spinning; a shiver ran down her spine. But… but that would be three. He couldn’t seriously mean to…

He’d know, of course, of the one he’d given her two weeks after starting her role in his office: the proofreading errors in his PowerPoint presentation to the World Travel Convention haunted them both to this day. But of her slip in the banqueting department, where she’d worked before joining him – the fine wines placed on each table at the luncheon honouring a particularly stern visiting dignitary from a famously “dry” Middle Eastern state? She doubted that the GM would possibly know that she had been to blame. Although part of her suspected that he just might.

As befits a man of his status, Matthew James occupied a rather fabulous villa on the outskirts of town. A former ambassador’s home, it was rumoured that the famous designers who’d spent many tens of millions ‘refreshing’ the hotel itself had found time to ‘pop in’ and work on their client’s home in their ‘spare time’. It was too large, of course, for a single man, but status counted when one was in the upper echelons of one’s profession, as he often reminded himself during his chauffeur-driven journey home. Even ‘at the very summit’, perhaps.

Its high-ceiling ballroom echoed with the ghosts of grand dances past. Its library was reputedly the best-stocked in the city, if nineteenth-century manuscripts were your thing. Its lawns, perfectly manicured by a team of gardeners, sloped gently down to the river ablaze with summer blooms. Not unlike the officers’ mess in Hereford, he sometimes thought, reflecting back on his former career of which he now rarely spoke, and then only in vague terms and with the utmost discretion.

Despite the delights of ‘home’, Matthew also kept a suite in the hotel for those evenings when he needed to remain on site. It suited him, too, to be able to make the ‘in crowd’ feel even more ‘in’ by inviting them for a glass of something bubbly in his ‘private’ room.

The suite’s living room fitted two armchairs, a sofa and a large desk, with plenty of room to spare. A series of tasteful prints lined the walls; the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows high up on the thirtieth floor never ceased to take one’s breath, particularly as night fell over the city’s spectacular skyline. The adjoining bedroom was large – the design crisp, modern, some might even say, stern. The bathroom could comfortably have accommodated four junior staff members, had they been relocated from the employee dorms.

He had quickly decided that he preferred the privacy of the suite, rather than the formality of his office, for administering the weekly punishments instituted by his predecessor. The latter was a little cramped, ‘room to swing a cat’ sorely lacking. He found his Monday afternoon sessions a continuing source of disappointment, yearning for weeks when his team’s performance had been so immaculate as to have needed no correction.

He flicked quickly through this week’s folder: four visitors, he noted, without taking in their details. Four young women being given the chance to continue their career, when many establishments would simply have dismissed them. That the punishments hurt, he had no doubt; of their efficacy, he was also fully convinced.

His clock struck three; he’d leave them to wait for a few moments. They’d have heard the chimes from the corridor; a few moments would allow them to focus their minds completely on what was to follow. At least today’s parade was silent, unlike the notorious incident the previous month when he’d found his three offenders pushing and squabbling in the corridor, fighting over who should be punished first. (He’d thrashed them particularly soundly for their misconduct, naturally, before instructing them to report back to him the following Monday so that he could deal with their original offences).

Finally he opened the door and beckoned the quartet in, making them stand in the small entrance hall.

“Georgina?” sounding puzzled as he noticed his assistant attaching herself to the group.

“Sir.” Quietly.

He racked his brains. “Was there something we needed to discuss before I deal with this week’s group?”

“No, sir.” She bit her lip. “My details are in your folder.”

“Ah.” Ah, indeed. Ah, and oh dear. He recalled scolding her on Friday and awarding her a mark; after all, it was important to be seen to treat one’s own team in the same way as he expected his department heads to treat theirs. That it might be her third hadn’t crossed his mind. How unfortunate. He was fond of the girl; she tried hard, worked well, learned fast. How very, very unfortunate.

He remembered the other three, and glanced along the line. Juliet he recognised from the restaurant (three stars, five diamonds). Name badges introduced the others as Alicia, in a smart dress (one of the administrative staff, he guessed) and tearful Petra, described as a ‘senior guest relations officer’. (‘Receptionist’, in lesser establishments, where such a role might not always require such a top-class degree).

He began his well-rehearsed speech: described the Royal’s goal of continuing excellence, explained the essential part that the hotel’s team played in meeting its very high targets. Noted that they must all be bright, capable, ambitious to have found themselves on the staff. Shared his disappointment at the fact that they were now standing before him in such circumstances. That they had let themselves down.

His quiet, softly-spoken words often took the girls by surprise, had they expected an angry lecture. He left them standing, as he sat back at his desk, reviewing the papers in more detail.

He looked up. None of the girls could bring herself to meet his eye.

And then he asked Petra to step forward.

He flicked through her papers once more. A catalogue of misallocated rooms, the same error repeated three times at the start of the month – the second and third occasions earning her misconduct marks. A sarcastic reply to a guest who’d (perhaps rather cheekily) requested an upgrade, overheard by the duty manager the previous Tuesday. And now – this, as a result.

“I shall offer you a simple choice, as I do with all of the girls who stand in front of me in these sessions, Petra. If you wish to stay in our employ, I’m sure that you understand the punishment that will be forthcoming. If you find that option unpalatable, then we shall dismiss you forthwith from our employ.”

“I want to stay, sir.” (Of course she did; she loved the place, she was learning so much. She had made so many friends. And the thought of her employment being terminated without reference was too scary to imagine. Even more scary than…)

He caned girls on the bare, with them bent over the side of one of the armchairs reaching out to hold onto the opposite arm. He instructed the trembling girl to lift her skirt and lower her knickers, explained the punishment position, and reached to the top of his bookcase to bring down the dragon cane that served him so well.

The strokes were hard, administered with the long-practised arm of one who learnt his trade as a prefect in one of England’s finest public schools. Six strokes, six parallel sets of tramlines across the girl’s pale skin. Young Petra’s vivid marks suggested that she would be grateful that her role behind reception entailed standing rather than sitting.

And then she stood, dressed, thanked him through her tears, and he made her rejoin the little group.

Juliet’s offences combined wrong orders, lost reservations, and a wonderful fiftieth birthday cake delivered to the guest of honour who was celebrating his fortieth. She was a sweet girl: one of his upcoming “starlets”, as he liked to call them. Yet starlet or not, the protocol was clear. Her heaving shoulders had as much to do with the fear of what was about to happen, as to the thought she’d had in the corridor as to how disappointed her parents would be if they could see their bright star of a daughter here, now.

She took her whacks remarkably bravely, her polite ‘sorry, sir’ after each stroke suggesting that she too had shared a higher class of education which had not inured her to the unparalleled pain of a truly sound caning. Repentant before he’d started, inconsolable now, she clutched her backside in evident agony as she walked back to the line.

Alicia came next. She worked in the finance team, he learned, and was studying for her accountancy exams. A graduate recruit: she’d only been with them for four months. And already the complaints regarding inaccurate billing for meetings in the conference wing had proved too much for her manager, who had allocated her three misconduct marks in swift succession over the past fortnight.

Three marks, six strokes, yelps accompanying each so loudly that passing guests in the corridor would be in no doubt as to the general manager’s methods. But no matter how plaintively a girl promised that she “won’t ever do it again, sir”, the fixed tariff of six still stood. Delivered with precision. Hard. Very hard.

And then… He tried to pretend she was just another ordinary girl. Not that any of them were ordinary, of course. Not that for his two minutes with each he didn’t invest in her his full attention, his full care, his fullest desire for her to learn her lesson. In a strange way, he reflected, this would take as much bravery from him as it would from her.

Georgina too tried to look brave as she stepped forward. Yet it’s hard to look brave, she thought, when you’re so terrified. Over the weekend, as she’d cried herself to sleep and cried herself back awake, she’d managed to convince herself that it was her pride that would be hurt the most – to end up here, like this. That was before she’d seen her colleagues take their punishment. Watching the other girls had made her realise that the pain of the caning would be likely to remain clear in her mind long after her pride had healed. This was what daddy had always threatened when he pointed to the willow tree at the bottom of the garden; always threatened, never put into practice.

He spoke softly, but firmly. “The uniform of a member of our hotel management team has to command respect, Georgina. And for our colleagues here to see you wearing it whilst you are being disciplined would undermine that respect. I therefore have to ask you to remove your jacket and skirt, before bending over. And please lean over the back of the chair, facing your friends.”

Facing her friends, so they could tell from her face that he was not going to be easy on his assistant, his closest helper – perhaps, he might admit, his closest friend. No yielding, no undue leniency. No matter how fond of her he had become over these past few months. How had she ended up here, like this?

She seemed frozen to the spot. So did he.

“Are you waiting for something?”

For the ground to swallow her, for time to warp back four days, for her general manager to remember that exclusion that saved girls in management from the cane? The exclusion that, of course, most certainly did not exist, as a desperate, I-know-this-is-futile search of the staff rulebook had confirmed in the early hours of Saturday morning as the city slept around her.

The back of the chair was much higher than its arms; she was almost on tiptoe as she leaned forward, reaching out to hold the front of the seat cushion. Taut, vulnerable. She glanced up at the other girls; saw their tear-stained faces; full of sympathy – the strange camaraderie that the whipped can offer to the soon-to-be-whipped.

Georgina promised herself to be strong.

Broke her promise on the very first stroke, as she leapt into the air, in shock and sheer agony.

“Perhaps we should start again?”

So he did, whipping her slowly, methodically, allowing just long enough for the pain of each stroke to reach its crescendo, allowing her fingers to clutch the cushion once more, before striping her cruelly with the next. Seven in total, her one extra adding to her shame.

And then it was done, and she was dressing again with shaking hands, avoiding his eyes and resuming her place in the line ready for life to begin again.

The girls held hands, sniffled, whilst the general manager sat at the desk to add a footnote to each misconduct record: his initials and the date, clearly displayed for anyone to see should they ever need to consult the girls’ records in the future.

He looked up. “A favour, if I may, Georgina?”

“Yes, sir?”

He held out the folder. “Perhaps you might take this downstairs? Save me a job?” Save him a job; but by making her reappear in the General Office, tear-stained with the notorious folder, sparking endless bouts of curiosity from her colleagues.

And then they were dismissed, with his reassurances and his best wishes for their future. Back to their posts, chastened, corrected, determined to improve, to fix their professional smiles and try to work for the remainder of their shift as if nothing had happened. While Matthew sat for a moment longer at his desk, reaching for the phone to order the bouquet of flowers that young Georgina would find waiting when she returned home to her apartment that night, with its simple message: “To my good girl. From M.”

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