The girl, neat in her new uniform, shifts nervously from foot to foot as the Headmaster behind his desk flicks through the pages of the manila file. She knows what he'll find inside - the records from her former school showing not only her successes (good grades, academic prizes, starring roles on the stage and the lacrosse field), but also her failures. Those forms, completed meticulously each time by her then housemaster, after she'd stood and straightened her skirt, once he'd put away the plimsoll. Those sheets of shame.
She wants to protest before her new Headmaster jumps to the wrong conclusions. "I do try to be good, I promise. And I've not been in trouble for nearly a year. Please don't think badly of me." But instead, she waits, the butterflies rioting inside her tummy.
He places the file carefully on the desk, and peers over his spectacles. "So, young lady: a fresh start, here in our sixth form..."
He looks at her, as if expecting a reply. "Yes, sir. I want to do well. I'll do everything I can. I promise."
He pauses, weighing her up - this slight, pretty lass, shaking like a leaf. "And we shall do everything we can to help, of course. We're very proud of our high standards, Miss Conroy; I think they'll be just what you need. Academic... and disciplinary."
She stares at the carpet. She mumbles an embarrassed "Yes, sir", to this man who now knows such shameful secrets from her past.
"Have no doubt, on the latter front, that we stand for no nonsense. Strict, but fair."
"Yes, sir." She knows of his reputation already, of course; the other girls in the dorm regaled her with their stories last night, once they'd heard of her impending appointment. Loved, they said, but feared too. Feared more than loved. Nightmares had followed.
He stands, walks around his desk, and puts a friendly arm around her shoulders as if in support and solidarity. "Then we understand each other, it seems. If you need help, my door is always open - as indeed is your Housemaster's. Now: go and make me proud of you during your time with us, Miss Conroy."
Make him proud How hollow a phrase that seems, two weeks later, as she obeys his order to fold her blazer and skirt neatly over the arm of the chair, then to touch her toes. Not the plimsoll, as at St. Christina's: she'd known that before he'd taken the cane from its hiding place in the corner of his study.
Nor the protection of layers of clothing: his instruction to her to remove her knickers was no less terrifying, humiliating for its anticipation.
"I did think we had an understanding, Miss Conroy," he tells her as he takes up his position behind her, to the side. "You've disappointed me. Very few girls find their way here to be punished, and yet you've been sent to me less than a fortnight after promising me your best endeavours."
Her contrition is genuine, even without the fear of what's about to happen. "Four strokes," he tells her: at least it wasn't the six the other girls had predicted, amidst their cruel fascination.
He makes her wait for her first taste of the cane: letting her contemplate, reflect ("How could I have been so stupid If only I could turn back the clock...").
To dread. To cry, already.
The blow, when it strikes - the precise moment unexpected - nearly knocks her off balance. She rocks forwards onto her toes, then backwards, then starts to try to process the pain as it burns, grows, overwhelms. She resists, somehow, the need to reach back and clutch her backside, to try (no doubt in vain) to quell the agony.
They didn't tell me it would be *this* bad...
He watches her discomfort; not unsympathetic to her plight, but knowing his duty. He always makes the first stroke hard: to deliver the false prophet of a gentle introduction would scarcely be fair, given what was to follow.
To follow... He bides his time, waiting until she is still, is ready, is focused. And then he cuts the second stripe directly below the first, its raised, parallel tramlines tracking and mirroring the first.
He counts to twenty, slowly, silently, carefully timing the third instalment of her punishment, administering it with a precise flick of his wrist.
She sobs. Loudly. But the hug she craves is nowhere near. She won't be back - this much he senses. He wills the final stroke to be precisely that - her last ever, a guarantee of future good behaviour - as he whips the cane down hard, hears her gasp, tells her to stand straight away so that she can dance, hold, soothe. He tells her to sort out her uniform: quickly, urgently she complies, wiping away tears as her fingers tremble on zips and buttons.
When she is ready, his hand appears supportively on her shoulder, as it had done at the end of her previous visit. "I'm so sorry, sir," she mumbles softly, as if the caning has drawn all of her energy.
"So am I."
And then he too has a form to complete, just like the housemaster at her previous school. For her to sign, confirming her guilt and her misery. He dries the ink on his blotter, and passes the paper to her. "Could you give this to my secretary on your way out, please For your file. And so she can send a copy to your parents."
"Please, sir: don't tell them."
He pauses, looks up, hears the pleading tone in her voice, and holds out his hand. She looks puzzled.
"Pass the punishment sheet back here."
He takes it from her. "Shall we keep this between ourselves" he asks, sympathetically. And, with a soft smile, he crumples the form and drops it into the wastepaper basket behind his desk. "You won't let me down again, will you"
She swears that she won't, this time knowing her vow to be true. She apologises; thanks him - and, as he opens the door - stumbles out, dazed and sore, to face the outside world and try to do better. To make him proud. Whilst he walks back to his desk, praying that she will, as calm returns to his study.
(c) Abel 2009 - must not be reproduced without prior written permission
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