“I am absolutely exasperated at your behaviour, young lady.”
“Yes, sir.” Ellie stared at the ground, clasping and unclasping her hands, avoiding his gaze as she dreaded what was to follow.
Her housemaster opened the heavy leather tome on his desk, scanning the neatly-handwritten entries. “Here we are. Tuesday the seventh. Less than three weeks ago. Arguing with Mrs Johnson. Three strokes.” He looked up: “I usually find that a caning is sufficient to impress the necessary lesson on a girl. Particularly when I had previously let her escape with a detention for a similar offence with the same teacher, in a misplaced moment of generosity, on the grounds of her prior excellent behaviour.”
Pleading: “But I did learn from it, sir. Really…”
“Yes, sir.” Really, she had. She thought back, the memories so fresh in her mind, un-erasable. The humiliation; the pain. The shame of becoming one of those girls whose name was recorded for posterity in the punishment ledger. The astonished, inquisitive looks on her fellow students’ faces as she rejoined the class from which she had been plucked to be disciplined.
He spoke softly, leaning forward across the desk towards her. “If you’d really learnt your lesson, Ellie, you wouldn’t be here now. More to the point, you wouldn’t have stormed out of Mrs Johnson’s class forty minutes ago, using language that is frankly not acceptable in this – or indeed any other – school.”
“But she’s totally unfair. It was a good essay, and she just doesn’t like me. She’s stupid. I’m just not…”
His silence silenced her. They looked at each other, each waiting for the other to speak. The girl looked down: “Sorry, sir.”
“I think that proves my point. You’re a bright pupil, Ellie; one of our best. And almost all of your grades are excellent. But Mrs Johnson clearly believes that your work in French Literature fails to live up to the high standards that she requires. And I trust her judgement absolutely.”
A pause. “Yes, sir.”
“More to the point, I am not prepared for one of the girls in my house to continue to insult one of my colleagues. And I am certainly not going to accept that any girl has the right to flounce out of a classroom in temper.”
Quietly, now: “No, sir.”
“I certainly hope that you understand, Ellie. This time. And I intend to make sure that you do.” He stood up: the trembling girl scarcely needed to watch him, the recording of that earlier afternoon replaying in her mind. The walk over to the back corner of the room; the sound of jangling keys from behind her; the creaking cupboard door, opening then closing. The cane cupboard. His walk back to the front of the room.
Puzzling. Instead of the rod that she had expected – dreaded, the housemaster held a piece of paper in his hands. He sat down again, and took out his fountain pen.
“I am not going to cane you again, Ellie. If two lectures from me, a detention and a sound dose of corporal punishment don’t get through to you, I have no confidence that administering a further caning to you now will guarantee your future good behaviour.” He scribbled on the form, and folded it into an envelope, which he carefully sealed and addressed.
Her housemaster looked up, handing her the packet. “You are to take this letter immediately to the deputy headmaster, in his study. It’s my request to him to admit you to the Punishment Dormitory for a period of 72 hours, or until he is convinced that you have learnt the error of your ways.”
“No, sir.” She felt the tears welling up; what she’d done wasn’t bad enough to merit the Punishment Dorm, surely?
“I’m not going to discuss it with you, girl. That is my decision, and I am convinced that it is in your best interests. Now, hurry along.” He screwed the lid back onto his fountain pen, and waved her to the door.
Dr. Jenkins, St. Clair’s deputy headmaster, is a man both loved and feared. Loved, as a brilliant scholar and inspiring teacher; good-humoured, kind; a shoulder on which the girls could, and often did cry when they needed someone trustworthy to whom they could turn in the absolute confidence that he always maintained. Yet feared, too.
In many ways, punishment at the hands of the deputy headmaster could be viewed as the school’s ultimate deterrent. Certainly, some girls found that their disciplinary path led into the office of the headmaster himself, but by the time they found themselves in that unwelcome situation, it was most often to hear confirmation of their expulsion from the establishment; any thrashings that he administered were therefore more final retribution than corrective punishment.
Dr. Jenkins, on the other hand, focused on bringing around rapid improvements in the behaviour of those girls whose housemasters had found the usual disciplinary methods to be ineffective. Girls like Ellie.
He’d been pleased to see her, at first. Surprised, perhaps, that one of his star pupils would have knocked on his door when she should presumably have been in class, but welcoming nonetheless. Offered her a seat on his sofa; asked how the rehearsals were progressing for the school musical (“I have to admit that Oklahoma is far from my favourite work, but I am confident that you will bring out the best in it.”).
He sat opposite her, sinking into a deep leather armchair. Reassuring, sympathetic: “You do look a little upset, my dear, if I may say so. Is anything the matter?”
She nodded, the tears that she’d vowed to keep back welling up once more. She reached into her blazer pocket, and pulled out the envelope, which she held out to him, her fingers trembling.
Jenkins walked over to his desk, taking a letter knife and carefully opening the envelope. He read carefully, then turned round to look at the distraught girl.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. Really. I mean…”
“The time for explaining yourself is well past; it was for your housemaster to assess your attitude to your offence, and your degree of repentance. My role now is purely to ensure that the punishment that he has requested is administered, in a way that will prevent your future misbehaviour. Even if I am surprised to see you, of all girls, sitting before me in this predicament.”
“Well, Miss Mitchell, I’m sure you’ve heard rumours about how the Punishment Dormitory operates.”
She nodded, noticing the immediate change from her first name to the more formal address. Rumours? Of course. The Punishment Dorm was the stuff of girls’ nightmares from the moment they entered the College. Nightmares that she was going to have to live for real. Yet, like a nightmare, it still felt implausible: was this really happening? To her?
Jenkins glanced at his watch: “You have seventeen minutes before the final lesson of the day begins. I want you to go back to your own dormitory, quickly, and pick up all of your uniform, including any sports kit that you may need. Nothing else. Take it to Matron, and ask her to show you to the Punishment Dorm; leave your things by the bed that she will allocate to you, and tidy everything away into a wardrobe when you return there after the final lesson is over.
“She will also hand you a document to read; you should study it very carefully, as I shall check that you understand it fully when I see you in the office that I have next to the dorm at 5.30 this evening. Understood?”
He passed her a booklet from his desk: “And you’ll need to present this to your teachers at the end of each lesson; they’ll know what to do with it. Now, girl: fifteen minutes, and make sure you’re not late.”
The next quarter-of-an-hour went in a flash; a rush back to her dorm; throwing her clothes into a bag; a dash to Matron’s office; being shown upstairs in the East Wing (so that’s where it was) to the Punishment Dorm – six neatly-made beds, a high-backed wooden chair next to each; three wardrobes, bare walls. Her bed the one in the far corner; bag thrown underneath, the oh-so-important document that Matron had given her placed on the bed to read later; a hasty journey back to room 17, the venue for the final lesson of the day. English Lit, thank goodness – she couldn’t have faced Mrs Johnson.
She almost made it on time – two, perhaps three minutes late. The class was already working, silently by the time she arrived, and Mr Robertson raised a quizzical eyebrow at her late arrival. Ears pricked up around the classroom at the news that Ellie had been with the deputy head – news of her argument with Mrs J had clearly done the rounds. Ellie sent to Jenkins – did that mean….?
She didn’t have her books with her, of course – she’d forgotten to stop at her locker on the way to the classroom. Robertson joked weakly that she must have known the text by heart: would she care to recite it to the class? And all the time, all she wanted to do was run and hide; to escape; actually, most of all, to know what was on that document that Matron had handed to her, headed ‘Punishment Dormitory Rules’. Ellie glanced across the room at Carolyn Bennett – a previous Dorm resident: what would she find if she could sneak inside Carolyn’s mind, download her memory?
The other girls wanted to talk after the final bell – to quiz her or to tease, she didn’t know. But she remembered Jenkins’ instructions – time to tidy her things away, and read that document. Ignoring her friends, she fled back to the Dorm, hoping noone observed where she was heading.
Two other girls were already in the dorm when she returned – she recognised them both: Livia Richards and Tilly Morgan-Young, both from the Lower Sixth. Ellie tried to sound cheerful: “Hi. I see we’re all in this together.” But neither girl answered; Livia raised her finger to her lips: “Shhhhhhhhhh”.
Tidying her things away came first: she found an empty wardrobe, and threw in her uniform, kicking her bag back out of sight. And then she perched on the edge of the bed, and started reading…
ST. CLAIR’S COLLEGE
PUNISHMENT DORMITORY RULES
1. Girls must attend all school commitments as usual (assemblies, chapel, lessons, prep classes, sports, scheduled rehearsals for official school plays, music practice and other formal College activities). Meals will be taken as usual, but girls must sit at the designated Punishment Dormitory table at the rear of the dining room. When not required for such activities, girls must return to the Punishment Dormitory immediately.
2. The Dormitory must be kept immaculately neat, clean and tidy at all times. Other than when cleaning or tidying, girls will spend their time in the Dorm sitting neatly on the chair adjacent to their bed, during which time they may read a textbook directly related to their current studies. The Dormitory door must be left open at all times.
(Ellie bolted onto the chair as quickly as she could).
3. There must be no talking in the Dormitory at any time.
(No wonder they’d hushed her).
4. Evening inspection will be at 8.30pm. At this time, girls will be standing beside their bed, wearing their dressing gowns. Lights out will be immediately following evening inspection.
(8.30? They can’t send us to bed at 8.30?!)
5. Reveille will be at 6.30am. Girls will shower, and then queue in silence in their dressing gowns outside the deputy headmaster’s office (adjacent to the Punishment Dormitory). The deputy headmaster will then review each girl’s performance over the previous 24 hours, based on the written reports which must be completed at the end of every lesson and other school activity, and left under his office door before 8pm the previous evening.
(Damn, damn, damn. She’d forgotten to give it to Robertson to fill in. Damn… Oh no…)
6. During this morning meeting, each girl will receive her allotted daily punishment.
(Allotted punishment? What on earth was that? She could guess…)
7. For the duration of their period as residents of the Punishment Dormitory, girls are expected to demonstrate the highest standards of behaviour at all times. All standard College Rules continue to apply; where these rules contradict the usual College Rules, these rules will take precedence.
8. At the end of her allocated time in the Punishment Dormitory, each girl will be interviewed by the deputy headmaster and their housemaster, who will together determine whether the offender may re-join the usual school routine, or whether further time should be spent in the Dormitory.
(Damn. Like, it might be more than 72 hours?)
9. Girls may not communicate any information regarding the Punishment Dormitory to other pupils, or speak to other pupils at any time unless required to do so by a member of staff.
10. Failure to comply with these Rules will result in punishment, at the sole discretion of the deputy headmaster.
Ellie breathed in, deeply. Although the rules didn’t mention the specifics of the punishments that were to be applied, she feared the worst: and that mention of ‘allotted punishments’ was scary. If only she could ask the others – but they stared intently at their textbooks as if they were the most fascinating books on earth, maintaining a monk-like silence.
She glanced at her watch: five o’clock. Thirty minutes until her appointment with Jenkins. She set to work, learning the rules…
“Hold out your hands, palms upwards, with your right hand on top of your left.” Her arms shook with nerves, as she tried to hold her hands still – and to avoid giving away her fear.
He drew the thick strap back, and cracked it down. Numbing at first. And then the pain… Oh, the pain, as if a hot coal had been pressed momentarily into her palm and then withdrawn.
WHACK! Oh, God it hurt….
She’d tried to learn the rules. Really, she had.
A moment’s pause, before the next burning blow.
She swapped, without prompting.
She had known what they said. Really. Just some of the detail: “What’s Rule Five?” She couldn’t remember the order in which they were listed. And reveille – 6.30? She’d though 7 o’clock.
The last of the four blows. Two for each mistake.
“You may leave. Shut the door behind you.”
That was it. Nothing more. No discussion, no time for apology. She skulked back to the Dorm, hands cradled in her armpits. Go away, tears: mustn’t show the other girls that I’m weak.
They’d heard, of course. Jenkins’ office was next door – sound must have carried through the thin walls, her punishment overheard. Had they listened sympathetically, or blocked out the sounds?
Livia smiled faintly at her, reassuringly. Tilly stared down at her book.
Ellie returned to her chair. She hadn’t known to bring a textbook, of course. Placing her reddened palms upwards, blowing down on them from the corner of her mouth, she looked up at the clock: dinner was approaching.
Their table at the rear of the dining room was a lonely place. Exposed to the gaze of the other students – some mocking, some sympathetic. The same food, the same horrible food as always. But eaten as if in a goldfish bowl – watched, observed, discussed. “Ellie Mitchell’s in the Punishment Dorm!” “Little Miss Goody-Goody’s in trouble.” “I wonder what really happens?” “I hope she’s OK.” And was that a flicker of a smile on Mrs Johnson’s face?
Prep followed: ninety minutes to complete that day’s homework. Less than Ellie usually spent – she frequently beavered away until late, snug in a corner of the library. Only 72 hours, though: she’d be able to catch up. At least, she hoped it would only be 72 hours… Classmates wanted to talk, but knew she couldn’t – this was like being sent to Coventry in reverse. Terrible. Horrible. Humiliating.
Back in the dorm, the other girls glanced at each other at 8.20, and started to undress, folding their clothes and placing them in their wardrobes. Ellie took the hint, and copied. Indeed, she’d only just clambered into pyjamas and dressing gown and made it to the side of her bed, when Jenkins walked in.
Carrying a slipper, she noticed. Well, more of a gym shoe, pump. So this inspection carried consequences, did it? Of course, she should have realised. Please let me pass…
He went to Tilly first: lifted her chin with his finger, inspected her face. For what? Make-up, she guessed. Jenkins checked her bed; opened and closed her wardrobe. Picked up the book from her bedside chair: “’Advanced Level Calculus’ – a good read, Miss Morgan-Young?” “It’s very well-explained, sir.” “Good. Well, young lady, you have passed the inspection. Bed.”
Obligingly, Tilly removed her dressing gown and hung it on the peg above her chair. She climbed, naked, beneath the sheets, and turned onto her side, her relief palpable.
Please let me pass…
Livia was next. The same routine – terrified girl faces master with eye for detail. An eye that picked up the stain on her school tie, hanging in the wardrobe. That noticed that her bed was made up incorrectly. Who picked out the dust on the top of her chair’s back.
Who made her remove her dressing gown, hang it up, then bend over the end of her bed.
Ellie seeing all from her position on the opposite side of the dorm. Noticing Livia’s already-marked backside. Tilly still on her side, deliberately looking away.
Both hearing the whack, whack, whack as the plimsoll descended three times, once for each mistake. Both hearing the, “Not good enough, Miss Richards,” as the girl was sent to her bed.
Please let me pass…
Please let me pass…
“Settling in, Miss Mitchell?”
“I thought we had discussed the Dormitory Rules earlier, Miss Mitchell?”
“Yes, sir,” she blushed.
“Recite Rule Four to me, please.”
“Sir, that Evening inspection will be at 8.30, and that we should be standing next to our beds by then in our dressing gowns.”
“When you re-read Rule Four in the morning, Miss Mitchell, you will note that it adds that ‘Lights out will be immediately following evening inspection’. It also states that girls will be ‘wearing their dressing gowns’. Not ‘wearing their pyjamas and dressing gowns’. Remove the offending items this minute; place your pyjamas in your wardrobe, hang up your dressing gown, and stand by your bed with your hands behind your back.”
Never could she have conceived of a situation in which she would be hurrying to strip in front of the school’s deputy head, but Ellie was back by her bed, naked within thirty seconds. Bare, exposed. Humiliated, and not for the first time today.
His inspection was thorough. “This bed is creased.” (From where she’d sat on it when she arrived, presumably). “There’s a bag under the bed: all belongings should be in your wardrobe. And there’s enough dust under here to make me sneeze for weeks.”
And then he opened the wardrobe. Ellie bit her lip: she knew now that the ‘fling the clothes in’ approach would fall far short of his exacting standards. Knew it. Before he turned to her: “I have never seen such a mess. By this time tomorrow, girl, your clothes will be hung up neatly, or immaculately folded. In the meantime, bend over your bed.”
Being punished was bad enough. Being punished with two other girls in the room was worse. Far worse.
The slipper hurt, oh so badly. Quick blows, delivered without mercy: she lost count after the fourth, as the tears started to flow. And they flowed because she was here, in the Punishment Dorm. They flowed because she was being punished, bare; being punished by this man she respected so much. They flowed because it HURT. They flowed most of all because she knew she’d failed to achieve the standards that girls in the Dorm had to meet.
The spanking ceased, and Jenkins spoke to her clearly: “Stay in position for two minutes, then get into bed.” She heard him walk away, and flick the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. And then, when he was gone, and enough time had passed, she felt her way around the bed and clambered in, the sheets cold against her throbbing behind, easing yet pressing.
Her sobs, muffled into the pillow, broke the silence. Her sobs, after a while, rocked her to sleep, to strange dreams of dark forests, deserted houses and evil men.
“WAKE UP, INTO THE SHOWERS”. The light snapped on, as Matron burst in on them at 6.30 sharp.
Ellie swung out of bed, shocked, still half-asleep, her feet landing on the cold tiled floor. Blinking rapidly, she looked at the other girls for an example, and grabbed her dressing gown before following them out of the dormitory and along the corridor.
“You first,” Matron instructed Livia, pushing her through the open door. She emerged again barely three minutes later, shivering: Matron pointed down the corridor: “You, wait outside the deputy headmaster’s office. And you,” she grabbed Ellie, “in the shower and be quick about it.”
Ellie struggled for a moment with the controls: she couldn’t work out how to get the hot water to flow. And then she realised, picturing Livia shivering before her, that there was no hot water. She climbed into the freezing stream, and washed as quickly as she could, before drying herself on the already-wet towel used by the previous girl.
Second in the queue for her appointment with Jenkins. The review of the previous day. Tilly joined them: three girls shivering, from cold and from fear.
But no sign of Jenkins…. They waited.
And waited. Still no sign.
And still no sign.
And then here he was, gown fluttering as he came through the door at the end of the corridor, and beckoned Livia to follow him.
He did not close the door.
They heard brief murmurs of conversation – Jenkins’ soft voice barely audible, Livia’s ‘Yes, sir’s and ‘No, sir’s occasionally reaching their ears. And then a sound that made them both wince: a sound so familiar to Ellie from three weeks before; the sound of a stick cutting through the air and landing against its soft target. Four times, each mixing Ellie’s sympathy for the younger girl with her own rising panic.
Livia emerged, and gestured to Ellie to go in. It was a small room; Jenkins stood next to the desk on the left-hand side, cane in hand. A wooden chair faced the wall ahead of her. “Bend over the back of the chair, Miss Mitchell, and lift up your dressing gown.”
She stepped forward, obeying his instructions. It hadn’t been like this with her housemaster: her punishment then had been preceded by a lengthy discussion and lecture.
“Reach right forward. Thank you.” Her backside felt taut, exposed.
“Your housemaster recommended that your daily punishment for the offences for which you were sent here should be three strokes. I shall add another two for your failure to provide me with your written report yesterday.” (Oh no… how could she have forgotten?) “Did you have it completed during the last lesson of the day?”
“Then another stroke for that, too. And ask the member of staff concerned to complete it retrospectively at some point today.”
And then she felt the cold wood being measured across her buttocks, and braced herself for the first stroke.
It was excruciating. Of course. She knew it would be, from last time. But somehow the memory dampens the pain, makes it seem less real.
But this was real. So real. Evenly-timed strokes, delivered with intent. Each building on the agony of the previous blows; each bringing her closer to the tears that she fought back.
Three had been bad enough at her housemaster’s hands. But three of Jenkins’ strokes merely took the pain of the whipping to a peak: the following three pushed the pain along a plateau, renewing and intensifying the anguish.
And then he was telling her to tidy herself up and leave.
All over. So quick. And yet two more such sessions to follow, on the next two mornings. She shuddered at the thought.
Back in the Dorm, she noticed that Livia was already in her uniform. The thrashed girls avoided one another’s eyes. Ellie dressed, as carefully and neatly as she knew how – to the soundtrack of poor Tilly’s howls from the neighbouring room. By the time the third of the musketeers reappeared, it was obvious that the last girl had taken the morning’s longest and hardest whipping: a thought as reassuring (thank goodness I didn’t get it that badly) as it was scary (but what about tomorrow…?).
There are days when time speeds by; every minute too short, every hour passing too quickly. At other times, the clock switches to slow-motion.
This was to be a slow-mo day.
Breakfast in the morning – her discomfort of sitting on her freshly-caned backside exacerbated by the certain knowledge that many of the girls staring at her from across the room would realise what she’d just been through.
At the end of each lesson, the crushing humiliation of having to explain to each teacher that she needed her report card updating. Their looks of surprise, tempered for some with expressions of sympathy. Comments, initials, and a tick: “Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor.” All ‘Excellent’s, so far, thank goodness: there must be some advantage to being a model pupil for most of the time.
Dodging questions and comments from her fellow students… Noting which girls offered her their sympathy and support; seeing which made the clever, snide, mortifying comments that she so hated.
Lunchtime – the same routine with dining, followed by a humiliating period queuing outside the Staff Common Room praying that Mr Robertson would emerge to sign the previous day’s report entry, before scampering back to the Dormitory. Twenty minutes spare, spent sitting on the Dorm chairs, waiting for the bell that would signal the afternoon’s lessons.
A double session straight after lunch with Mrs Johnson. Ellie lying low, working hard, the class seeming to drag on forever. The contented smirk on the woman’s face as she signed the card: ‘Good’, to Ellie’s relief. And then a music lesson: the chance to de-stress, with forty minutes’ piano practice with cheerful old Mr Scott, who nearly fell off his piano stool when asked to sign the report, and gave her a friendly hug as she left.
She was a good girl. Really she was. It was all a mistake, her being in the Punishment Dormitory. Just a silly mistake, of which she was frequently reminded, by tasks, by comments, and by the ache in her behind.
That night’s evening inspection was going to be different. Very different. She was going to make sure she complied; escaped. Careful clothes-folding; her bed made and re-made three times; her report card delivered on time; standing bolt upright next to her bed at 8.27. Each girl busy as a bee, albeit a silent bee – preparing themselves, protecting themselves.
Ellie’s efforts even raised a ‘Good’ from Jenkins, who chose her for the first of his inspections. Livia, too, sailed through with flying colours.
It was as if Jenkins was saving himself for Tilly: the one girl who’d escaped punishment the previous evening, and who’d taken that morning’s worst thrashing. Nothing met the deputy head’s high standards: the way her bed was made, the dust on top of her wardrobe, her insufficiently-polished shoes, her un-ironed school shirt, the dirty hockey kit in the bottom of the cupboard.
Her attitude… Telling Jenkins that he was victimising her, when he asked why she had failed the inspection so dismally, was not the brightest of ideas. He stormed out of the room, reappearing moments later with the strap he’d used to punish Ellie’s hands the previous afternoon. Yet it wasn’t Tilly’s hands that he whipped: the naked girl adopted the usual evening position, over the end of her bed, and endured (scarcely endured) a dozen or more lashes across her already-tender backside.
Yet when Jenkins had left, and Ellie whispered a soft, “Are you OK?”, Tilly could only answer, “Shhhh, he might hear,” and return to her sobbing.
Another full day. Almost routine by now.
If being last in the queue to be bent over a chair and caned could ever really be described as routine.
Thank goodness, Tilly – already crying before she went in – was dealt with first, yet again with a severity that scared Ellie senseless. Nine strokes, she counted through the open door, drawing howls and yelps of agony.
Livia went next: Ellie counted once more. Three, this morning. She’d had four yesterday, hadn’t she? Ellie surmised that one of the previous day’s must therefore have been for something on her report card.
When Ellie’s turn arrived, it was something on her report card that caught Jenkins’ eye. She’d barely checked Mr Robertson’s belated entry after he’d updated the booklet after lunch – pleased that he’d given her a ‘Good’. Jenkins was less impressed with her late arrival and forgotten textbook, about which the teacher had commented.
Three extra strokes. Six in total, once again. Six searing, agonising blows. Surely it should get less painful, the more one is punished, the more used to it one gets? Maybe he was caning her harder. Maybe it never gets easier…?
She was less of a celebrity today, she noticed. The other girls were getting used to her status; the fact that Miss Ellie Mitchell had been sent to the Punishment Dorm was no longer hot news, no longer novel. In a way, that hurt more – yeah, that Ellie, she’s the sort of girl who gets into trouble, you know?
The morning progressed smoothly, until the first lesson after morning break. A French vocab test, something she’d usually have sailed through with full marks. Perhaps it was the constraints on her time – ninety minutes’ study the evening before, with no extra time in her beloved library. Perhaps her mind was elsewhere. The discomfort of sitting still for lengthy periods hardly helped. But 65 per cent was scarcely up to her usual standards, and brought a dreaded ‘Poor’ on her report card.
Mr Robertson’s English Lit class in the afternoon was no better: a ‘B minus’ grade on the paper she’d written two nights previously, rather than her usual ‘A’; another ‘Poor’. “That’s not fair,” she retorted: “B minus isn’t poor – it’s better than most of the class.”
‘Argued with my assessment of her disappointing performance in the class’ was the comment he wrote. She knew how Jenkins would respond. “Please, Mr Robertson – can’t you delete that? I wasn’t arguing, just checking.” To which he inserted a ‘persistently’ after the word ‘argued’ in his comments.
And then, when she returned to the Punishment Dorm at the end of the afternoon, both Tilly and Olivia were gone. She supposed she should have been relieved for them, their sentences over; the solitude merely made her anxiety greater.
If dinner was bad – sitting alone at the separate dining table – that evening’s inspection was worse. Jenkins inspected every corner of the room, finding fault wherever he looked – even rubbish left by the other girls, that Ellie had overlooked. “Never mind the fact it’s not in your part of the room, the Rules state that the Dormitory must be kept clean and tidy. The fact that you’re the only person here doesn’t invalidate the Rule.”
She took six agonising whacks of the plimsoll. As she lay in bed afterwards, she reflected that a slippering should scarcely hurt, in comparison to the canings to which she was now becoming reluctantly accustomed. Yet as a method of punishment, it seemed particularly effective – re-igniting the dampened fires of the morning’s thrashing, in addition to its own unsubtle pain. That, she decided, was presumably exactly why Jenkins chose to use it.
Her final morning. Or, at least, she hoped and prayed it was to be her final morning – whilst she dreaded what was to come.
No one to hide behind in the queue for Jenkins’ office. “We’ll deal with this in stages,” he informed her as she adopted her position over his chair, lifting her dressing gown clear of her backside. “Your usual morning allocation, first.”
Damn, damn, damn. They hurt, Jenkins swinging the cane high and laying into her with all of his strength.
Two more for the ‘Poor’ in French. “Girls of your calibre have high standards to meet, and it’s particularly disappointing when you fail to meet them.” Both excruciating; low strokes – adjacent to each other, just touching. The weals from those would be agonising to sit on during the day.
“And then we turn our attention to the fact that you still seem to view arguing with teachers as acceptable.”
From her position over the back of the chair: “I didn’t….”
She remained silent. He continued: “I am minded to add up the strokes you had received before this morning, and re-administer them to you, since they were clearly ineffective.” She shuddered, not daring to add them up. “However, I think that a further six may suffice.”
A further six? Surely… OWWWWW… How was she going to survive this? Not fighting it, for one thing: she let the tears flow freely. The next three strokes landed across virtually the same path, each harder than the previous. And then he took his time for the final trio – spacing them out, ensuring that their message had reached home.
And then, just as before, the perfunctory dismissal – and she was back in the dorm, face down on her bed, sobbing as she’d never sobbed before.
Ellie spent the day on auto-pilot, scarcely conscious of the world around her. She picked up ‘Good’s on her report card; she didn’t have the emotional or physical energy to ‘Excel’. Her closest friends glanced across at her from time-to-time, worried about her well-being; she brushed off their queries with a none-too-convincing, “I’m fine.”
She scarcely ate a morsel of her lunch. Three worries fought for concern in her mind. She had a lesson with Mrs Johnson after lunch: would she manage to stay out of trouble, or would the teacher be out to make a point? Would her ‘arguing’ of the previous day count against her at the end of her 72 hours, and see her stay in the Dorm extended? And what would it be like, re-emerging into normal school life, to questions, taunts and (hopefully) hugs?
Mrs Johnson was fine. Her attitude – and the ‘Excellent’ she recorded at the end of the class – seemed to gloat, “I’ve won.” And, Ellie reflected, she probably had.
It was mid-afternoon when Matron appeared at the door of classroom and asked Miss Mitchell to report to the deputy headmaster’s study. Twenty pairs of eyes followed her to the door.
She was taken not to Jenkins’ small office next to the Punishment Dorm, but to his study in the main school building. The deputy headmaster and her housemaster were both waiting, sitting on the sofa, and stood up as she entered. They offered her a seat in the armchair. The atmosphere seemed as welcoming as could be expected, in the circumstances.
“Tell me, Ellie, what have you learnt about yourself in the past 72 hours,” Jenkins enquired.
She paused. Was there a right answer to give? “I guess… that I probably don’t always think before I open my mouth. That I don’t like being in trouble. That I don’t want to go through this again.”
They both looked at her and smiled. Her housemaster spoke first: “I hear you’ve been a brave girl, Ellie.”
“I’ve tried, sir.”
He continued. “Dr. Jenkins and I both believe that you have learnt your lesson well. Especially after you were dealt with this morning following your discussion with Mr Robertson yesterday.”
She bowed her head, ashamedly. “Yes, sir.”
Jenkins stood up. “Your time in the Punishment Dormitory is completed, Ellie. Don’t come back in a hurry.”
She shook her head, ruefully: “I won’t, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Go and pick your things up, and take them back to your usual dorm.”
“Yes, sir.” She turned to leave.
“And one other thing, Ellie.” It was Jenkins again.
“It’s the ‘Excellent’ pupils like you that make St. Clair’s the great school it is. And don’t you ever forget that.”
“Thank you, sir.” And, tears of shame mixing with tears of relief and tears of pride, she left the study and emerged a free girl once more into the long, portrait-lined corridor, ready to face the other students…