It had been two years.
Two years since she had last been summoned to the Headmaster’s office.
Two years since…
She tried to block it out of her mind.
Two years since he’d…
…since he’d punished her.
She knew from the other girls that she’d got off lightly. They’d told her. Teased her. ‘Cry baby Steph,’ they’d taunted, as she’d returned to the classroom, tear-stained and hurt, no longer the perfect angel who’d never been in trouble.
Only three strokes.
Yet every one of them was imprinted on her mind even more firmly now than it had been then, the shame and pain of each blow still fresh, still smarting.
She tried to picture what would be going on right now, behind that heavy door. How he’d be lecturing Susan, reaching for his cane, instructing her as to how to position herself for what was to come.
Think of something else. Think of the holidays. Think of walking along the river.
Think of Susan.
No… think of playing with the kittens at home. That essay she had to write.
Think of how Susan must be feeling now. Of how scared she’d been as they’d walked, together, from the classroom to his office. Knowing how they’d been caught, and what would await them. Think of how unconvincing Steph’s reassurances must have seemed.
Think of the book she had read last night. Of the film she was due to go and see tonight. Think of the…
Steph glanced at her watch. Susan had been in there nearly five minutes. Enough time, surely? Any moment now…
She straightened her tie. Stood up straight, smart, presentable.
This couldn’t be happening again. How could she have been so stupid? After last time.
Was it worse, knowing what was to come? The terror of the unknown, mixed with the hope that it couldn’t be *that* bad? Or the certainty born out of painful experience, that it could indeed be that bad. Worse.
And then the door was open, and a red-faced Susan was in front of her, avoiding eye contact, scarcely able to utter the ‘He asked you to go in.’
And in a whirl, she was inside, and the door was closed, and he was sitting in his armchair, the cane on his desk (if anything looking more fearsome than in her memories), the sunlight flooding into the room.
And she stood, arms by her side. Waiting for him to begin.
He looked at her, his gaze drawing her eyes to his. ‘You’ve been to my study before, Stephanie, I seem to recall.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ Trying to stay calm, trying to be brave.
‘When was that?’
‘Two years ago, Sir.’ The sixteenth of June, to be precise, at 10.15 in the morning.
‘Mmmm.’ The Headmaster looked over at his bookcase, and pointed to a set of leather-bound volumes. That set. In which her name had been inscribed, a record for all time.
‘Bring me the one for two years ago.’
Nervously, she looked along the row, finding the right book and passing it to him, hands trembling.
‘Any idea when exactly?’
‘At the start of the summer term, Sir.’
He flicked over the pages, and ran his finger down the list of names. ‘Yes, indeed. I remember now.’ (Did he, she wondered? Did he really remember, as she remembered?). ‘And yet here you are again, back here, if my records are correct, for precisely the same offence?’
She sniffed, and hung her head. ‘Yes, Sir.’
‘Your friend told me that it was her idea to leave the school premises this lunchtime to go shopping. Is that true?’7
Thank you, Susan. Thank you. ‘It… it sort of was.’
‘Well…’ What could she say? What if she disagreed with Susan’s version of events? ‘Well, we were both talking about this new CD that was out today, and we kind of looked at one another and both… Well, I mean…’
He paused, watching her. ‘And what did I tell you last time you played truant, when we had our… conversation… up here?’
She bit her lip, unable to find the words.
He prompted her, firmly. ‘I’m surprised you don’t remember.’
‘I do remember, Sir, really I do, and I know that it was stupid and….’ Her voice trailed off. And please don’t cane me, Sir, she wanted to say. Please don’t make me bend over. Please don’t lecture me, and tell my parents, and…. I’ll be a good girl, really I will.
‘You’re a bright lass, Steph. One of the best. And I so dislike it when the nice girls in the school end up before me like this. When they let themselves down. Do you appreciate that?’
She nodded, resisting the momentary urge to tell him that if he disliked it so much, he could stop and let her go.
He walked around the desk, and stood in front of her, addressing her softly. ‘But you know that we have rules, which are designed to make the school a safe and happy place. And that it’s my duty as Headmaster, no matter how difficult it may be at times, to have to deal with those who infringe the rules.’
Very quiet now: ‘Yes, Sir.’
‘And that Susan has taken her punishment, and I must discipline you as well?’
Get on with, please, and put me out of my misery.
Keep talking, please, don’t make me bend over.
The Headmaster turned, and picked up the cane. ‘Let’s get this over with, shall we? Hang your blazer neatly on the door, remove your panties and skirt, and bend over the desk. You know the routine, I’m sure.’
But… but… surely… ‘But Sir, I was allowed to keep my panties on last time.’
‘And you are now in the Sixth Form, my dear girl, and I am surprised you’re not familiar with the school rules. We cane sixth-formers on the bare. As they should know better.’
As if it could be *worse* than last time. As it that were possible.
Meekly, shocked, she followed his instructions. Bared herself, thankful that he politely averted his gaze. He stepped behind her, the two of them dancing towards their respective positions as she moved towards the desk. She leant forwards, the wood cold against her thighs, her hands folded neatly on her back as he had taught her last time.
He measured the cane across her, reminding her how it would stripe her when he whipped it down. ‘Since the three strokes that I gave you last time were clearly insufficient to prevent a repetition of your truancy, I shall be giving you the full six this time.’
‘But I promise…’
‘You said that last time, Steph.’
And he drew the rod back, and whipped it down, and she howled. Howled with the unbearable pain. Howled at the humiliation. Howled in disbelief that this could be happening again. Howled in fear at the fact that there were five more to follow.
She had to be brave. WHACK.
Had to be grown-up.
Biting her lip, feeling the tears welling up. Trying to blank her mind – as if that were possible as the cane descended once more against her, a fourth stroke even more painful than its predecessors.
Hear his voice, distant, telling her that there were only two more to go, that she should brace herself and be brave.
Feeling the rod tap gently, then swish down once more, directly overlaying the previous stroke and taking her pain levels new heights… or depths…
And only one to go, and then it would be over, and she could escape, and hide, and see Susan, and…
And the last was the worst. As it had been last time. As she guessed it might always be. A guess she hoped, feared, knew that she would never have to validate in a repeat visit.
He was kind, afterwards. As he had been last time. Turning away as she dressed, fingers shaking as she struggled to make herself presentable, whilst wiping away the tears. Filling in the punishment record quickly, recounting the details of the caning that he had just inflicted: the date, her name, her class, the number of strokes. The offence. (How could she have been so stupid? How could the day have turned out so different, so much worse than she could have feared in her worst nightmare the previous night?)
And then he told her that he was confident that she would not be returning. That he hoped that she would learn, and remember, and see through the rest of the term without incident.
That she should go directly to her classroom, and rejoin her lesson.
That it was over.