Visiting her old school, a pleasant meal out leads to one unpleasant memory, and then another.

By Joanna Jones

It was a damp September Day and Susan Bryan was feeling nostalgic as the taxi drove up the drive towards the large Georgian building where she’d been schooled for six years, from the age of twelve through to about four months after her eighteenth birthday.

However, this time she was invited back as a former pupil, to give the current sixth formers a presentation about her college at Oxford University, and her subject, a dual honours in History and Law. She would be starting her third and final year in just over a week’s time.

She remembered attending those presentations herself, held intensively every evening from early September to early October and then about once a week during the rest of the year. These ones were aimed mainly at the upper sixth, who were busy with their university applications, while the later weekly ones were more for the lower sixth and fifth as they decided what might interest them in the future, and what university or (if Oxbridge) college they might want to apply to. She recalled how varied and often inspiring they had been, and how enthusiastic the young women had been. This was the first time she had been asked and as a result she had put a huge effort into it, both preparing her talk, and in bringing extra information for those with questions.

On arrival she found herself briefly waiting outside the Headmistress’s office. As she sat in the vestibule she remembered the two times she had been there. The first had been with her parents, just around the time of her twelfth birthday, as they were all interviewed prior to her getting a place. She remembered being rather awed by the place, and the energetic, kindly but firm headteacher.

The other time had been rather less pleasant as she remembered waiting here with three other girls, having been caught playing a very foolish prank on one of their peers. The memory was still vivid; first the dread outside sitting on the same chairs as she was now. Then there was the lecture inside from a Miss Dalton who had been firmer than the previous time and definitely much less kindly. She recalled the word ‘bullying’ being mentioned and being upset, as she never considered herself like that. It was only after, as she considered it all in the cold light of day sometime later, that she realised her behaviour towards the other girl had been exactly that. The worst part had been, of course, near the end; the ‘swishing’. Even now she involuntarily shuddered if it came to mind and tried to put that memory back in the box that she kept it in. Deserved it may have been, but that made it no less painful to consider, even now.

However, she had learned her lesson, become a prefect and was now on target to get a top degree from a top (well, in her view, the top) University in the country.

Hence, unlike the previous two times she sat in these chairs, on this occasion she could relax without nerves dominating her thoughts.

“Susan Bryan! It is great to see you, and looking so well. Though not much of a tan, I see!” Miss Dalton was effusive in her welcome as she guided her into the office.

“It is lovely to see you too, Headmistress,” replied Susan. “I had a summer job in a law firm in London, so the opportunities to see the sun were a bit limited this year.”

“Indeed.” She said, smiling, and pushed the intercom to ask the secretary to bring a couple of coffees.

The next hour or so was an enjoyable chat about Susan’s life as the Head asked about her studies, hobbies at University and so on. There were not many questions the other way, and Susan in truth knew much of the news from the alumni magazine that appeared every quarter. However, the Head did say her younger sister was doing well. She seemed actually to be doing academically exceptionally well, as well as Susan had done, though the Head did say she was a little more assertive, and at times mischievous. Veronica had, she knew, managed more than one disciplinary visit to the Head’s office, and although in the upper sixth was not a prefect. However, her assertive nature and bubbly personality had led her to becoming a Head of House; a role elected by one’s peers rather than an appointment from the teachers, who decided the prefects.

After, the discussion moved to the arrangements for her talk, and dinner with the Head and Mr Talby, who was one of the few male teachers and the head of History. Finally Miss Dalton pointed her in the direction of the guesthouse, actually the converted gatehouse, where she would have a room for the night, to settle in for an hour, have a walk around the grounds or whatever, before her talk at three thirty.

The earlier drizzle had stopped so Susan did indeed have a walk, feeling yet further nostalgia at seeing the third form girls out on the hockey pitch, the games mistress, Miss Hope beseeching them to more effort as she simultaneously refereed the inter-house training match as usual.

At three she went back to the school and into a class where the chairs were set in a couple of semicircles to try to keep the informal atmosphere.

She was not surprised to see Veronica at the seminar which was well attended. Susan’s preparation paid off as she spoke eloquently and enthusiastically. The questions were fun too, with varied topics on everything from how she’d chosen her college to what was the social life like, as well as why she’d mixed history and law. It was well after the hour, in fact nearly five thirty and tea time, when they finally finished.

Finally able to relax she was enthusiastically congratulated by Miss Twigg who arranged the series. Instead of the full meal the girls were having, she received literally a cup of tea and a couple of scones to keep her going, given the dinner appointment was not till 8, and the taxi would be coming to take them into town at 7.45.

Normally the sixth form girls had prep from 6.30 till 8.30, but Veronica had an exemption for an hour, letting the sisters have a good gossip. She soon had all the news from her; which friends of her sister had boyfriends and how her club activities were doing and so on. In the sixth form it had always been enjoyable to have chats with her sister who was in the fourth then fifth, and it was one thing she missed now she was away at University.

Finally, Susan dashed back to the gate house to brush her hair and change for dinner. She was glad of the extra few minutes afforded by the taxi picking her up after the Head and Mr Talby. She had chosen to keep her business suit on, but changed the blouse to something less formal, and put on her favourite necklace.

Miss Dalton had similarly changed slightly, though Mr Talby looked to be the same as ever.

The meal was delicious, and supplemented by a very good French wine between the three of them. Again she enjoyed the conversation. She had not realised that one of her lecturers, Dr Vance, was an old student friend of Mr Talby and there were some interesting reminisces from the teacher at one or two of the antics they got up to. It is always difficult to imagine your teacher or lecturer as a student, but students’ capability for bouts of low level mischief clearly were inter-generational.

Susan was not sure how it started, but over coffee the conversation somehow ended up discussing essays and academic honesty. Susan of course agreed that it was vital that both students and pupils did their own work and that sanctions were needed to ensure that was the case, to maintain the integrity of the system.

It was then that Mr Talby said: “Indeed, I had to send a sixth former at the end of last year to you, Miss Dalton, for copying a large tract of her essay from a book in the school library.”

“Oh!” Said Susan non-committally, though she suddenly felt a pricking in her fingers. Something was up, and a long forgotten part of her conscience seemed to stir from its slumber.

Mr Talby continued as if unaware of any change in Susan’s body language, though in truth both he and the Head had noticed a small tightening in her relaxed demeanour. “Yes, what did you do with her again?” He asked the Head.

“Well, all cheating is a serious matter, but I spent quite some time trying work out why the girl had done it, and longer still discussing the importance of integrity. She was quite upset by the end of all that.”

“Indeed.” Interjected the History Teacher as he monitored Susan’s reactions surreptitiously.

The Head continued. “Of course she was a lot more upset after six of the best on her bare backside.”

“B… bare?” Exclaimed Susan quietly in a half-stammer.

“Not something I do often, and usually only for sixth formers who really should know better, and even then I keep it for certain specific cases, cheating being one. Most girls like you never see my cane so late in their school career, as you know. Anyway, given what the consequences of cheating are at university would you not agree that it is better to nip things firmly in the bud at that stage, and an embarrassing caning is certainly better than suspension or expulsion?”

Felt compelled to answer, Susan replied: “I expect you are correct, headmistress.” Inside her, a waking conscience was stretching itself awake. The feeling was distinctly unpleasant.

Miss Dalton had been interviewing guilty females for more years than she cared to remember, and was more than experienced enough to see the subtle changes in the young woman. However, she carried on with the ‘game’ and turned to the History teacher and said: “Refresh me, what was the material she had copied again?”

“Oh it was a section in a book dealing with social issues in the early 19th Century and the genesis of the trade union movement. The girl had foolishly copied a long section dealing with the Tolpuddle Martyrs.”

Susan struggled not to choke as Mr Talby said that. Her conscience had now found its voice, and was muttering something about how it had told her so.

Meanwhile both teachers watched with a detached satisfaction and the rather shocked now very pale face presented to them.

The ‘game’ continued.

“The funny thing was that she nearly got away with it, Susan,” continued her former history teacher.

“Oh?” Croaked Susan by way of reply.

“Yes, but I remembered the passage from a previous essay from an excellent student who also submitted it in the last few weeks of her lower sixth year. Susan are you okay?”

Susan was now feeling rather sick and a bit faint. “Yes, well sort of. I think.” She replied rather incoherently.

Her normal self assured confidence, which her school education had to large part contributed, was rather conspicuous by its absence. In fact, the only part of her seemingly happy was that of her clearly about to be vindicated conscience, the bit that she’d boxed up over three years ago once it was clear she’d got away with it at the time.

“Do you know who that essay belonged to?” Asked the Head, now with a distinct note of steel in her voice.

“I… I think so,” stammered Susan quietly as her conscience jubilantly trampled down the devil that had tempted her. “It was mine.” She whispered.

“Indeed,” replied Mr Talby. “I spent ages wondering how she had copied from you, and even thought of challenging you to see if you had somehow given her a spare copy of it, whether the girl had somehow purloined it from my cabinet, or if I’d somehow shown it to a girl as a good example of how to cover the key points. However, eventually I just challenged her.”

“She was shocked and appalled that she had been caught, and very surprised that someone else had found and used the same obscure book. To her credit, she told the truth immediately.” Mr Talby continued.

‘Shocked, appalled, surprised’ were all adjectives that could describe Susan’s emotional state at the moment. Her conscience was now not just awake but full of energy; she heard it jubilantly laughing at her. ‘Truth will out, I told you so!’ Was its gleeful message.

“Can I ask why you did it?” The Head asked.

“The deadline was the same day as the school musical. With all the rehearsals, I just ran out of time. I have never done it before or since.” She replied somewhat lamely. The last statement was true enough as she tried to reassure them she was not a serial cheat.

The Head and Mr Talby looked at each other. Unbeknownst to Susan, the girl caught in July had given the exact same reason. There and then, Mr Talby’s intention to move that deadline forward at least a couple of weeks was confirmed.

“Well the question is what to do now.” I suppose, said the Head looking at the twenty year old cradling her coffee cup clearly in deep thought.

“You are not at the school any more, so Mr Talby thought a quiet word with Dr Vance to keep an eye on your submissions might be the easiest solution to prevent future temptation, but I was not sure that would be for the best.”

Susan’s head shot up as the concept that her university might become involved took hold. Her inner conscience now smiled smugly at her discomfort, having been boxed up for far too long.

There was a long silence as Susan contemplated the discussion. She felt indeed like a naughty schoolgirl who’d been caught, and that ‘nostalgic’ feeling was not one she either wanted or expected to feel again.

Eventually she looked at the two teachers and asked: “Is that really necessary? I assure you it was a one-off. I have never done it since, and it won’t happen again.”

The two teachers glanced at each other before looking back at her. It was the headmistress who spoke. “I am glad to hear it Susan, but I think Mr Talby’s view is that some acknowledgement beyond the simple apology is needed, and I wholeheartedly agreed with him. His suggestion seemed the easiest.

Susan was now very uncomfortable as she realised that they actually were quite serious. While she knew she had been honest at University she did not really want to have the embarrassment of them knowing.

“Is there any other way?” She asked.

“Such as?” Responded the Head.

Susan could only see in her mind one other way as she examined the white china cup still further. In the prolonged silence she realised it was up to her to enunciate it.

“You, you could deal with it as if I was still at school,” she blurted out quickly before her courage left her.

Her self-satisfied conscience seemed to say ‘well done’ in her ear as it sat rather calmly in her mind’s picture.

“Do you mean taking a similar punishment as the other girl?” Miss Dalton asked bluntly.

“I, I suppose so,” she whispered before taking a breath and saying: “Yes, yes Miss. The same.”

The Head looked at Mr Talby who nodded, then returned to Susan, whose look was of rather bleak resignation.

Finally the Head spoke again. “Very well, but I think you should have the night to sleep on it. I suggest you come to my office at 8 am when all the girls are at breakfast. In the rare event that a girl gets herself in more serious trouble during the night I see them after morning assembly, so we can expect privacy. Is that acceptable to you?”

“Yes, Miss. I am really most terribly sorry.” Replied Susan.

“So are we.” Answered Mr Talby.

With that, the two teachers steered the coffee discussion to other things, which only needed very limited input from Susan, whose mind was definitely elsewhere as she considered her morning appointment. It was a conversation they maintained in the taxi back, once again dropping her off at the gatehouse.

The gatehouse had three bedrooms available to school guests upstairs, while the downstairs belonged to Mr Roberts, the chief caretaker and groundsman. His wife Anne looked after the guests.

She was still up and welcomed Susan back. Anne noticed Susan was rather pensive and uncommunicative as she said good night.

Susan did not sleep well. She remembered the last time she’d felt like this. It was after her dorm-mates and herself had been caught late with their prank. Miss Dalton had given them an appointment for after assembly. None of them had slept well as they knew what was coming.

Then as now, time moved in mysterious ways, sometimes hardly moving as she lay awake, body aware of what was planned for it in the morning, then suddenly jumping an hour or two indicating she must have slept, despite never having felt she did so. At least her conscience was being sympathetic, and the ‘devil’ that had tempted her was nowhere to be found. Good riddance to that, she supposed.

Eventually it was seven. A brief shower and she got dressed into her formal blouse and skirt. She looked at the spare knickers she had brought, which were rather adventurous, but then she was hardly going to wear granny knickers at her age, and as for regulation school knickers? Well she knew she had a couple of pairs at the back of her drawer at home, but they had not seen the light of day in years, well just over two years to be exact!

There seemed little point to put them on, she thought sickly, but for form’s sake did so anyway. However, she did decide to leave her tights off, and she had a horrible feeling that would be the case for a couple of days. It will be jeans or stockings, she supposed, at least till the worst of the effects have gone.

Going downstairs, Anne Roberts was surprised to see her so early. When she said she was paying the Head an early morning visit as nonchalantly as she could manage, Miss Roberts nodded as if she had no idea of the reason.

Susan trudged up the drive in the cool September morning air, her bare legs aware of the light breeze which also seemed to swirl up her skirt onto her thighs as she did so. However, her overriding emotion was of the dread of what lay ahead.

The school entrance was deserted as she arrived, and she made her way to the Headmistress’s office once more. She was about five minutes early and there was no answer when she knocked. She sat on one of the chairs, now remembering and indeed re-experiencing all the emotions she had had on her previous visit for a disciplinary ‘interview’.

Though it seemed like an age, Miss Dalton was precisely on time and, seeing the pensive young woman was already there, ushered Susan into her office.

“So Susan, do you want to add anything to last night?” Miss Dalton asked quite sympathetically.

“Other than how sorry I am, Miss, not really. It was a one-off, I promise, and in some ways it is a relief to be found out, though I am not looking forward to the next few minutes.” Susan had an odd wry grimace on her face as she made the last comment.

“So you would prefer this was dealt with internal to the school?” The Head confirmed.

“I think that is the preferable option, yes miss.”

“Very well. Normally I would give a girl a very long lecture in this case, but in your case I think there is little point. I hope I know you well enough to be able to accept that you made a one-off mistake, and that is the view of Mr Talby also. So if you have nothing else to say I suggest you get ready and put yourself over my desk. As we discussed last night, it will be six strokes, bare.”

Susan rather shuddered at the word ‘bare’ but stood and put her tailored suit jacket on the back of the chair she had been standing next to. Slowly she slipped of her shoes and skirt to reveal her yellow nylon underwear. She saw the Head raise an eyebrow, but she made no comment. Finally she slid them down and off, rather quickly placed them on the chair and got bent over the desk, managing to keep the front of her body turned sufficiently away from the headmistress to keep her dignity, or some modicum of it anyway.

Her conscience seemed to be passively watching her from outside, watching her twitch as it saw the Head line up the first stroke with her cane. It was, she guessed, the senior girls’ cane, perceptibly thicker than the one she recalled sobbing through before.

The emotions churned as she waited for Miss Dalton to start. The dread, the nerves, the tingling, all those horrid memories were returning. At least this time she did not need to watch a friend endure the agony first.

Thwack!

She gasped in shock as the cane’s sting rapidly built, pervading her entire consciousness. She had to fight down the urge to stand, and instead grit her teeth and gripped the table more tightly.

The second blow took its time coming, but caused another shocked exhalation as the sting multiplied.

She was breathing deeply as the next two strokes were slowly administered. Despite not crying out she felt a wetness in her eyes.

On the fifth, a small wail accompanied a stamp of her foot as she coped with the worst pain she could ever recall. The tears, a mixture of pain and guilt, were flowing freely.

“O-o-o-oh!” She gasped as the last stroke cut deeply low into her bottom.

Slowly she stood and surprised herself by having enough control to turn slightly away and get her knickers on before finally gently probing the damage though the fabric, the tears were still falling down her face as she moaned quietly to herself. After a couple of minutes Susan finally had sufficient composure to dress fully and face her former Headmistress once again.

“Well Susan, I hope that is a lesson you will remember if ever tempted again. We do expect our old girls to fully keep up the school ethos, after all.” Miss Dalton spoke quietly but authoritatively.

“Yes miss, and thank you.” Susan gasped, as she used a proffered tissue to wipe her face.

After a goodbye, she slowly walked out of the school and down the drive, desperately resisting the temptation to rub her bottom in case any girl should be watching from the school windows.

As it happened, the only person observing her departure was Mr Talby who noted with a little satisfaction that justice had finally caught up with young Miss Bryan.

Susan slipped upstairs as soon as she got back to the Gatehouse and was surprised to find a small pot of cream had appeared on her bedside table, no doubt left by Mrs Roberts. She clearly had guessed the reason for the early morning appointment. Perhaps, Susan realised, she was not the first to visit the headmistress so early. Slowly Susan stripped off her skirt and knickers and had another cry as she rubbed some of the cream into the painful raised ridges on her bottom, and then just lay on the bed. It was a cry that left her feeling purged of the guilt she had ignored for so long, and with a conscience that she felt return to a rather deeper, happier slumber.

The End