The summer’s last, belated burst of sunshine masked a surprising chill in the late evening air. Tilly shivered as she walked briskly up the street – biting her lip as she swung open the gate and walked up the path between his carefully-tended flower borders: wouldn’t do to look too happy.
She’d go straight upstairs, she’d decided. Avoid questions. A lovely evening out but she hadn’t wanted to disturb her guardian: had some work she needed to finish before next week’s return to the city. To home, to school, to reality.
She turned the key in the door, pushing it open as quietly as she could. Her tiptoed dance along the corridor got her to the bottom stair, before his voice called her back, probing with the one question she didn’t want to answer. “Evening, Tilly. You’re late! What have you been up to?”
She turned smartly around, brushed down her dress (did it look too creased?) and walked back to the drawing room. He laid down a heavy hardback as she walked in, and looked up as if inspecting his charge. She smiled brightly at him: “Is it a good book?”
“Sadly not. His last won the Booker, and rightly so. This is a little lightweight in comparison. Frivolous, even.”
Silence, increasingly uncomfortable. “I was going up to bed. Some stuff I want to finish reading. For the new term.”
“Very good. Once you’ve answered my question.”
“What question, sir?”
That faint trace of welcome vanished from his face. “Where have you been this evening, Tilly?” Formal, stern, demanding to be answered.
Stay calm. Keep smiling. “I was at Alice’s, sir. We were sitting out in the garden chatting.”
“You were….?” He let the silence hang in the air.
Eventually, she spoke, a shade less confident now. “Yes, sir…”
“And did you eat?”
Perhaps too quickly, falling into the trap: “Her parents gave me dinner, yes. It was nice of them…”
“How interesting. And how are Mr and Mrs Watson?”
“On good form, sir.”
“That’s great to hear. Such lovely people. And it’s so kind of them to feed you. I must call them to thank them…”
He reached across to the side table next to the sofa, and picked up the phone receiver. Slowly, he started to dial…
“They… Just… Please…”
She cringed as he spoke. “Gerald? Evening! Harold here… Fine, thank you. And you?… Marvellous. Just a quick call to express my gratitude for your hospitality this evening… Tilly… Oh! Oh, I’m sorry: I must be confused: I thought she’d said she’d been at yours for dinner…. No? I must have got the wrong end of the stick: my apologies… Sunday? Yes, of course: I’ll see you in church. Bye bye.”
He put down the phone. “Upstairs. Bath. Pyjamas. And then I’ll be up for a little discussion…”
Leaving the room, climbing the stairs, trying to think of excuses.
Undressing, shaking at the memory of the last time he’d punished her.
Running the bath, sliding into it as if the water could hide her. Wondering if she could charm her way out.
Putting on her pyjamas, heart beating fast, dreading hearing his approach.
Sitting on the bed, clutching her teddy, wishing he’d get on and come upstairs and get it over and done with.
“You stay out late without permission. You lie to me about where you’ve been. I think I have the right to expect better from you.”
“Please, sir. I’ve been so good, worked so hard while I’ve been here. And I apologise, really I do…”
“Fetch the cane from the wardrobe.” No arguments, no sympathy.
“If you’d like me to call your father, I can…?” She turned, head bowed, and reluctantly walked past him to fetch the dreaded implement. She’d tried her best to hide it amidst her dresses on the first day of her stay, so as not to be reminded every morning of its ever-present threat. And she’d almost, almost survived the summer. This time.
She handed him the crook-handled rattan, knowing all-too-well what was to come. Blushed as she nervously dropped her pyjama bottoms. Bent over next to her bed, meekly and obediently, and stretched forward to touch her toes. And winced with shame as he lowered her knickers.
“A disappointing end to your stay, Tilly,” he observed as he stepped to the side and readied his aim. “I don’t like liars: you’ll count to twelve.”
Twelve? When he’d only given her six last time, and that had been unbearable? When at school, the Headmaster had only given her and the other girls four each (on that terrible afternoon, almost-but-never blotted from her memory) – and those with less force than the lights-out slipperings that the prefects doled out so over-enthusiastically in the dorm rooms?
Twelve… Each with a ferocity that surprised, even before the excruciating pain cut home. Twelve, taken as stoically as she could, but counted through barely-muffled sobs. Twelve weals that would continue to hurt and shame long after he’d gone back downstairs.
She knew to expect few words from him as he beat her. The lecture had come before: the cane did the talking now, until it was over and, through the haze of tears, she was standing and pulling up her clothing after her sentence was complete.
And oh, how she then needed a hug, to be told it was over and that they need discuss it no more. Yet… he kept a distance between them, frowning.
“I’m sorry, sir, truly I am.” What more did he expect from her? Forgive me now: please?
“I’ll make the next part of this easy.” (Next part?) “I don’t want you to have to spin any more lies. Who was the boy you were with this evening?”
She gulped. He couldn’t know. Surely. Trying to sound surprised, innocent: “Boy…?”
“No lies. We’ve just discussed lying, haven’t we? Don’t make it any worse…”
He looked her up and down, waiting for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. “I said I’d make it easy. I bumped into Gerald earlier when I was buying milk. He mentioned that he and Elizabeth were on their way out to dinner and the theatre this evening. And also that he’d seen a girl in a green dress walking along the riverbank holding hands with a boy he didn’t recognise. He thought it was you. You’ll excuse the little pretence of the phone conversation we planned; I’d hoped you might be honest with me without us needing that.”
Think quickly, Tilly. Think quickly… “It was me, sir.”
“Who was he, and where were you going?”
“His name’s Billy, sir. He lives up on the estate on the edge of town. We were just strolling, then we sat and chatted for a while. Under a tree, watching the river. He’s nice.”
“Chatted so much that you came back with your dress crumpled and grass stains on its back?”
“Did you have sex with him, Tilly?” Blunt as can be.
Blushing deeper than she’d ever blushed before. “No, sir. We… cuddled, as I’ve said.”
He was standing close now. “Cuddled? And where exactly did he touch you whilst he ‘cuddled’ you?”
“We kissed, sir. That’s not wrong, is it?”
“Kissed? Is that all?”
“Yes, sir. Honestly.”
But honesty and her account to him of the evening were necessarily strangers. “Tell me the truth, Tilly…”
“You know, I’d almost be inclined to believe you, were it not for the guilt etched all over your face. Put your hands on your head, Tilly. Now!”
Meekly, she complied, as he continued. “See, if you’re not prepared to tell me…” And without warning, his hand reached forward and touched her breast. “Kissed – and then what? Did he touch you here?” A pause, and then: “You know what happens to liars.”
The tears that had accompanied her caning welled up once more. “Please, sir…”
His hand slid between the buttons of her top now, brushing her nipples. More shamed than she’d ever thought possible; pleading: “Sir…”
“So you let him fondle your breasts?”
“Sir… Please. We weren’t hurting anyone.”
He continued his exploration for a moment, then withdrew his hand. “And where else?”
“Sir….” And then another, more urgent plea as his hand pushed inside the elastic of her pyjama trousers and into her knickers. “No, sir…”
“No, he didn’t touch you here?”
“Look me in the eyes.” But how could she, as his fingers brushed such private parts? Slowly, she lifted her face, mortified, desperate to bring it to an end: “Yes, sir, he touched me. Just for a moment, and then I stopped him. But that was all.”
“Such shameful behaviour; so inappropriate. So very wrong.” He slowly withdrew his hand. “And such an interesting interpretation of the word ‘all’. Now: you’re in enough trouble that your answer to my earlier question will make little difference to your punishment. But let me repeat it, and do tell me honestly this time: did you have sex with him, Tilly?”
“No! Sir, you have to believe me. I wouldn’t do that. I’m not that sort of girl…”
“After what I’ve just found out, I don’t know quite what sort of girl you are. One who lets boys from the town touch her up on the riverbank? It’s not a good girl, for sure, is it?”
Not a good girl, who was sent to his study, to retrieve the improbably-thick leather strap from the roll-top desk. (“I taught in Scotland for a little while. I used to find this far more effective than the cane when the senior girls misbehaved.”)
Not a good girl, who found herself lying naked on her bed a few minutes later, her already-marked and painful bottom lifted into the air by the pile of pillows.
Not a good girl, who held tight onto the sides of the mattress, cursing her stupidity and clenching as she readied herself for the thrashing.
… who reached back in agony to clutch her buttocks at the first shocking stroke.
… who screamed aloud at the second, imploring him to stop.
… who knew beyond a shadow of doubt by the third that what she’d done was deeply wrong, and that she deserved – needed – to be punished.
… who lost count soon after, wishing he’d given her the comfort of a set number of strokes and of counting their progress to a clearly-defined end.
… who knew at that end, when he told her it was over, that he’d achieved his stated goal: “I’m going to whip you until you’re truly sorry.”
… and who, finally, fell into her guardian’s forgiving arms for the longest of hugs. “Not a good girl today, Tilly. But today’s over.” And, as he tucked her into bed, a gentle kiss on her forehead. “So brave. Now sleep, and forget. And I’ll have the best of girls back in the morning. Night, night…”