The young reporter pays another visit to the school.
by Alison Short
After my first, never-to-be forgotten encounter with the redoubtable Hilary Underwood, headmistress of the Wolds School, which I have already recounted, my head was in a spin for days. It had been like waking from a bad dream, except that it was not a dream, as the stripes on my poor backside bore witness.
The stripes, six of them, were a memento of Miss Underwood who, after explaining to me how she caned under-performing pupils, had given me a demonstration of her methods, a demonstration to which I had foolishly submitted in the interests of what might be called investigative journalism. Never again!
Except that, the more I pondered the episode, the more ambivalent my feelings about it became. The physical pain had long passed and, in its place, there was a residue of something rather more pleasurable. I realise now that first-hand experience of corporal punishment had triggered in me, as it has in so many others, masochistic impulses that would keep tugging away at me at odd hours of the day and night.
My first task, of course, having met Miss Underwood in the course of a journalistic assignment, was to complete that assignment. I duly filed a piece of 500 words, profiling Miss Underwood and reporting on the dramatic improvement in the school’s academic record under her leadership. ‘Teachers at the Wolds School write half-term reports on their pupils,’ I wrote, ‘and if Miss Underwood believes that a girl is not giving of her best, she intervenes to ensure that they perform better in the second half of term.’
I decided not to tell my readers that the intervention took the form of a caning, and I certainly did not mention that Miss Underwood had demonstrated her methods on me, as she had specifically asked me to keep that confidential. But I was unable to resist a small private joke which I hoped would amuse her.
‘The formidable Miss Underwood looks set to turn The Wolds into one of the best girls’ schools in the county,’ I concluded my piece. ‘She certainly made a marked impression on me.’
Imagine my surprise when, two days after my piece was published in the local paper for which I was working, I received a letter marked ‘PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL’ addressed to me at the newspaper’s offices.
It was type-written, signed by Miss Underwood, and, after thanking me for my kind words about the school, concluded on a more censorious note.
‘I am bound to say, Miss Simpson, that I find the pun in the final paragraph of your article extremely juvenile. I specifically asked you not to make any reference, coded or otherwise, to what had passed between us. I am disappointed in you.’
Underneath, she had added a handwritten postscript.
‘If you wish to apologise in person for your inconsiderate behaviour, I shall be available in my study at six-thirty next Friday evening.’
I could scarcely believe what I was reading. Not only had my private joke backfired badly, but it had given unintended offence to a woman towards whom I certainly bore no ill-will. My first instinct was to pick up the telephone and make my apologies to Miss Underwood immediately. But the option of apologising ‘in person’, dangled in front of me by someone who could obviously read me like a book, was too much to resist.
If I rose to her bait and reported to her study at the appointed time, would a mere verbal apology suffice? Or would she expect something more by way of penance? And might that something involve a second dose of corporal punishment?
From what I had seen of Miss Underwood, and her almost messianic faith in a good thrashing as the best way to get girls to “buck their ideas up”, it was not hard to intuit what form our interview might take. So why, given that the ball was in my court, and it was entirely up to me whether to pay a second visit to her study, did I choose a course so fraught with hazard?
Looking back now, from the perspective of middle-age, it is obvious to me that my embryonic interest in the world of spanking had grown further and faster than I consciously realised. Other friends whose experiences have paralleled mine have testified to the same phenomenon. I wasn’t afraid to risk a further encounter with the cane because, deep down, I wanted just such an encounter.
My emotions as I drove to the Wolds School on the appointed day were conflicted, to say the least. I allowed myself plenty of time, anxious not to arrive late, dressed smartly, in a cream linen jacket and black trousers, and even took the precaution of buying a small bouquet of flowers, intended as a peace offering.
On my previous visit, Miss Underwood had greeted me in person at the entrance to the school. On this occasion, rather to my surprise, the door was opened by a red-haired young woman of around thirty.
“Miss Simpson? The headmistress told me to expect you. I’m her secretary and personal assistant, Charlotte Forbes.”
We shook hands, a touch awkwardly.She gave my bouquet of flowers a sardonic glance, then led me briskly along a corridor to the headmistress’s study, which I remembered so vividly from my previous visit. The clock on the wall stood at exactly six-thirty.
“Come in, Miss Simpson. How nice to see you again. I wondered if I should be seeing you this evening. All right, Charlotte, you can leave us.”
I had wondered what mood I would find Miss Underwood in, and first impressions were pretty positive. She smiled, shook hands and cast a quizzical eye at the flowers I was clutching.
“These are just a small gesture to say how sorry I am for what I wrote,” I began, launching into a speech which I had been rehearsing in my head for days. “You suggested that I might want to apologise in person and I was keen to demonstrate my contrition. You said my article was juvenile. You were right. I apologise.”
“Thank you.” She seemed slightly nonplussed by the fulsomeness of my apology, as if she had been expecting me to trot out feeble excuses instead, and I was curious what her next move would be in the strange game of cat-and-mouse in which we were engaged.
Without saying anything, she took the flowers and placed them on a side table. Then she gestured to me to sit on the sofa and sat down next to me. Nearly two minutes must have passed before a word was said. Then she turned to me and gave me one of her wintry smiles.
“That was a very pretty speech, Miss Simpson. It does you credit. I am smiling because I am reminded of an episode which took place a few years ago at the last school at which I was headmistress. Shall I tell you about it?”
I nodded dutifully.
“Mary Evans was an enigma. Like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid. On this occasion, she had been sent to me for, I think, running in the corridor. What do you think the little minx did? She turned up at my study with the most enormous box of chocolates, said how terribly sorry she was and promised it would never happen again. It was quite a performance. So good, in fact, that I decided to spare her the rod.” She cocked an eyebrow at me. “You know your Bible, Miss Simpson?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think…”
“He that spareth the rod spoileth his child, or words to that effect. The Book of Proverbs, I think it is. I may be old-fashioned, but I believe there is more truth in that quotation than in the whole of Sigmund Freud. In the case of Mary Evans, it could hardly have been more apposite. I weakened, spared her the rod, let her off with a warning and, not two weeks later, she repeated exactly the same offence.” She gave me another of her wintry smiles. “Needless to say, I did not spare the rod on the second occasion. In fact, she got double.”
I smiled back nervously. “I do hope you’re not suggesting that my flowers should be considered in the same light as Mary Evans’ box of chocolates?”
“Good heavens, no, Miss Simpson. It was a very kind gesture and made, I am sure, with the best of intentions. But gestures, however kind, should not be allowed to muddy the waters and disrupt due process. When someone has done something wrong, it is important, for all sorts of reasons, that they face the consequences of their actions. That is the best and simplest way. If I may be quite frank with you, Miss Simpson…”
At this juncture, our conversation was interrupted in the most extraordinary fashion. I had been conscious for the last few minutes that a woman in the adjoining room, presumably Miss Underwood’s secretary, had been gossiping away on the telephone. Odd fragments of what she was saying had percolated through the walls of the study. Miss Underwood had ignored them up till now but at this point she snapped.
“One moment, Miss Simpson,” she said, before shooting across the room and opening the door to the study. Seconds later, I could hear her giving the hapless Charlotte a severe telling-off. “How often must I tell you that private telephone conversations during working hours are not permitted? It’s not just discourteous to me, it’s discourteous to my guest. And I won’t have it, Charlotte. Over!”
What the “Over!” referred to was anybody’s guess but, with the door half ajar, I could not only hear the entire conversation but its dramatic aftermath; a series of loud slapping noises punctuated by yelps of pain. So Miss Underwood applied her methods to her staff as well as her pupils! Bloody hell. What sort of madhouse had I wandered into?
A few minutes later, still looking cross, she had resumed her seat on the sofa and, in answer to my unspoken question, offered an explanation: “As I suspect you are beginning to realise, Miss Simpson, I am both a traditionalist in my approach to discipline and, in my modest way, an innovator. Young Charlotte Forbes was the school secretary under my predecessor. She has many admirable qualities, but is inclined to be slipshod in her work and general attitude. As I have told her repeatedly, she needs to buck her ideas up. Now, of course, for a head teacher to chastise members of staff in the same way that they would chastise errant pupils is unheard of in the twentieth century. You would have to go back to the Victorian period to find anything of that sort happening. But I gave the matter careful thought and decided that, in this instance, I would break with tradition. Would you like a glass of sherry?”
The sudden change of tack took me completely unawares, but I nodded my acceptance and, a few minutes later, we were sitting next to each other on the sofa sipping sherry together. Bristol Cream, if memory serves.
“I was completely open with Charlotte,” Miss Underwood resumed. “I said that I liked her as a person, but that her performance of her duties was so erratic that, unless there was a dramatic improvement, I should have to dismiss her. We could go down the route of warnings, written warnings, even fines, or she could agree, of her own free will, to subject herself to the same disciplinary regime as my pupils which might, in exceptional circumstances, necessitate corporal punishment. She considered my proposition and, rather to my surprise, she agreed. So there you have it.”
I stared at her open-mouthed. The whole set-up was just so damn weird, light years from anything which I had come across in my short, rather sheltered, life. If it had not been for the scene which I had just witnessed, I would have thought that Miss Underwood was pulling my leg for some reason.
“And how often…?” I began, curious to flesh out some of the details.
“As often as is necessary, Miss Simpson. I do not keep a punishment book, as I do with the girls. It is a much more informal arrangement. Everything happens off the record, so to speak. But I am happy to say that the medicine is working and that, despite odd lapses, like the one you witnessed just now. Charlotte is a reformed character.”
“You make it sound like a game,” I blurted out, and immediately wished I had chosen a different word. Miss Understood frowned, to indicate that I had overstepped the mark.
“Oh, it’s not a game, Miss Simpson. Whatever put that idea into your head?” There was another lengthy pause. “But we were talking about you and what we are going to do about you. I find myself in a bit of quandary. Should I accept your apology, thank you for the flowers and let the matter rest? Or should I stay true to my principles and insist that, flowers or no flowers, apology or no apology, lapses in good manners should not go unpunished? What would you do in my position, Miss Simpson?”
Clever, very clever. Whatever happened in the next ten minutes, she wanted to ensure that it happened with my consent and that I would not therefore be in a position to complain about the outcome.
“Well, I’m not sure, I hadn’t really thought, I imagine…” I was hopelessly conflicted, which probably explains why I ended up sitting on the fence.
“If I were in your shoes, Miss Underwood, I would probably chastise me for my misdemeanour, but find some way to soften the punishment, to reflect the fact that I had shown proper contrition.”
To my surprise and delight, she smiled, the broadest smile I had yet seen from her.
“You are learning fast, Miss Simpson. That is exactly the same conclusion I had reached myself.” With which she drained her sherry and stood up. “To business. You will receive six of the best for that juvenile joke in your article, but I am satisfied that you are properly apologetic, so I will not, on this occasion, cane you on the bare bottom. However…”
What next? I could feel my palms starting to sweat with suspense.
“I think it is only appropriate, both for your good and her good, that Charlotte should witness your punishment. I assume you have no objection? No? Good. Charlotte!” And with what, looking back, was suspicious alacrity, Charlotte had joined us, looking smug and demure, as if butter would not melt in her mouth.
“Will we be needing the punishment book, Miss Underwood?”
“No, Charlotte. That will not be necessary. This is an unofficial proceeding. Now, Miss Simpson…”
A couple of minutes later, I found myself bent over the same desk as on my previous visit to Miss Underwood, with my trousers around my ankles. I did not expect my white cotton knickers to offer much by way of protection, but at least I was not on full display to Charlotte, who had taken up a position directly behind the action. Then, it was time to meet my nemesis, that biting cane, wielded by an expert, lashing down on my buttocks.
A second caning can never have quite the same traumatic impact as a first one, and although the searing lines of pain in my buttocks were much as I remembered, bringing me to the edge of tears, I managed to be a little more composed in the way I reacted to my thrashing. In a very short time, my ordeal was over and I was told I could pull up my trousers. And soon after that, I was taking my leave.
There was, however, one final, and totally unexpected, twist, which had my head spinning as I got into my car.
Seconds after the front door of the school closed behind me, I distinctly heard Miss Underwood and Charlotte laughing together, as if they had just pulled off an elaborate practical joke of some kind. Laughing! And at my expense! What the hell was that about?
The answer to that question would have to wait for another day.
© Alison Short 2020