Devotion To Detail

A headmaster deals with an awkward member of staff

by Hilary Wilmington

There was a knock on his door. “Come in. Ah, Mrs Hargreaves.” He congratulated himself on calling her ‘Mrs Hargreaves’.  She disliked being called ‘Matron’. On her first day, she had informed him, with the suggestion of a smile, that she didn’t think it suited her. To be fair, it was hard to imagine anyone less like the stereotype of a school matron. She was tall, dark and willowy and (with him at least) she was fond of adopting a ‘femme fatale’ manner. His eyes gravitated downwards to her legs and rested on them for a few seconds. They were exceptionally nice to look at.

As it happened, he had been thinking about ‘the Mrs Hargreaves question’ when she’d knocked on his door. He had obtained her at short notice from an agency in London when Miss Fynhame, the long-standing matron of the school, had been taken seriously ill. She was still in hospital. He had visited her there on the previous day and he gathered that it was expected to be a long recovery.

In the event that Miss Fynhame was unable to return, it seemed unlikely that Mrs Hargreaves would wish to stay permanently. Unlikely, but not impossible. She might have her own special reasons for wanting to stay in this quiet, out-of-the-way spot in the depths of the English countryside. Mr Wilkins had managed to find out that she had been sacked from a previous job and he suspected that further investigation of her might reveal serious past transgressions.

This would not necessarily put him off appointing her. A dubious personal history could provide useful leverage. One of his present teachers had been sacked from her last post as a senior mistress in another girls’ boarding school because of a drink problem. He had thereby acquired an excellent and hard-working teacher at a comparatively low salary. He might achieve something similar with Mrs Hargreaves.

He could not fault the work she had done so far. In the short time she had been at the school she had conducted a thorough review of all the First Aid equipment, replacing most of the existing stock and installing new emergency boxes in the gym and the staff rooms, which he thought eminently sensible. On the other hand, it would not be a popular appointment. He was fairly sure he was the only one on the staff who went along with her wish to be addressed as ‘Mrs Hargreaves’; everyone else resolutely stuck to ‘Matron’. Miss Fallon had unthinkingly concurred with Mrs Hargreaves’ own view when she had observed, sourly, that ‘the woman is far too glamorous to be a Matron.

“I need to borrow the cane again, Mr Wilkins,” Mrs Hargreaves said as she entered the room. It would be the third time since he had told her she could use it, at the beginning of the previous week. Oh well, she had to establish her authority, he supposed.

“Yes, I thought that might be the case,” he said.

She wondered if there was a criticism lurking in his reply.

“Is it a problem?” she asked challengingly. “You did say I am allowed to give the cane.”

He had done more than that. He had actually instructed her in how to use it. Having told her (to her surprise; it had not happened in any of her previous schools) that she would be allowed to and having established that she had not used one before, he took her through the procedure in detail. He had even at one point taken hold of her wrist when showing her how high to raise it in the air. He had her practice on a cushion, asking her to imagine that she was aiming at the seat of a girl’s knickers. Examining the furrows she had made on the cushion cover, he had cautioned her against landing two strokes in the same place. She had derived some sardonic amusement from all this, fancying that he must enjoy giving such tutorials, (and especially to someone like her, she thought immodestly) but she’d had to admit it had been genuinely useful when she had come to administer her first punishment. She had been able to do it with a confidence that she would not otherwise have been able to show.

“Yes, you are indeed allowed to,” he replied, “Provided you have my agreement.”

“Is it really still necessary to ask your permission every time?” she asked. “And go through all the details. It just seems to me to emphasise my lowly status in not being a teacher.”

In accordance with human nature in general, having been granted a modest privilege she was now resentful at not being granted an even greater one.

“The teachers have to do exactly the same,” he informed her. “Not Miss Fallon, of course, or the senior mistresses. They have their own cane, in their own staff room. But everyone else requires my prior permission.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that,” admitted Mrs Hargreaves. It was taking her a while to get used to how extremely hierarchical this school was, even more so than any of the other schools to which she had been posted by her agency. There were separate staff rooms for senior mistresses, junior mistresses and non-teaching staff. The latter did not include the likes of cleaners, who were expected to make do with an area set aside for them in the basement. She herself went to the junior mistresses’ staff room, despite receiving strong hints that she should join the cook, the housekeeper and a games instructor who was not a ‘proper’ teacher, in the small room they had to themselves. Mrs Hargreaves had decided to brazen it out, especially after discovering that the Head Girl was sometimes invited to join the junior mistresses in their room. Mrs Hargreaves had no intention of being relegated to a lower rung than one of the pupils.

“What is the name of this girl you say has misbehaved in some way?” asked Mr Wilkins.

“Caroline Crick,” she told him. She decided she had better take the hint that he wanted to be informed about the nature of her transgression. “She was talking with her friends after lights-out last night. I went back twice to tell them to stop and the second time Caroline answered back and was rude. I told her to report to me at break time this morning, up in the dormitory.”

Mr Wilkins was trying to place Caroline Crick. He himself had been at the school less than a year and he hadn’t quite learned all the girls’ names yet.

“Is she fair-haired, with a pony-tail? A very pretty girl?”

“I suppose you could call her that.”

“How many strokes are you intending to give her?”

“I haven’t made up my mind yet.” She knew perfectly well that this wouldn’t be acceptable, but she felt like making it difficult for him.

“Well please do so. I require to know the details of the punishment you wish to give.” He did indeed, and he did not begrudge the time spent on it.

“All right then,” said Mrs Hargreaves, “I will give her three strokes. With your permission, of course,” she added, with the merest hint of irony. “I suggest that since we will be in the dormitory she should receive them lying face down on her bed. Like Miss Fallon did with that girl the other day.”

Miss Fallon was the Deputy Head. Despite not being required to consult Mr Wilkins before giving the cane, she often did so. When he had first arrived at the school she had confessed to him that it had always had a rather traditional and old-fashioned approach to discipline. He had assured her that he fully supported corporal punishment for the correction of misbehaviour, although he would not be himself administering it, ‘for obvious reasons’.

Miss Fallon, for her part, placed great importance on keeping the headmaster happy and she had quickly learned that he was willing to engage in lengthy discussions of individual cases where corporal punishment might be required. She had consulted him about a girl who had already received three strokes for smoking, only to be caught smoking again the very next day. Obviously, she deserved the maximum six strokes for this, but there was the awkward fact to contend with that her bottom would already be sore and marked from the three she had already had.

Miss Fallon had tentatively proposed making the girl lower her knickers, which would allow a clear view of the stripes from the first beating and enable her, she thought, to administer the second in such a way that it did not overlap with the first. He did not dismiss her proposal out of hand, conceding that punishment on the bare bottom would have the added advantages of being more painful and humiliating.

He asked Miss Fallon if there was any precedent in the school for such a punishment and she admitted that she did not know of any. He had pointed out that governors and parents might disapprove if they got to hear of it. It would be preferable to wait, he thought, until the first set of stripes had faded. Mrs Hargreaves could inspect the girl in a couple of days and give her opinion on the advisability of a second caning.

Miss Fallon had been reluctant to wait, saying the girl had been showing off to her friends about her defiance of authority and she was in danger of becoming a celebrity to some of the troublemakers lower down in the school. Mr Wilkins appreciated her concern. After further discussion he had come up with the idea of caning the girl on the backs of her legs. Miss Fallon had readily agreed to this solution.

That had not been the end of the matter, though. They had gone on to discuss whether, in view of the novel place of application, the girl should be made to adopt the usual posture (bending over and holding on to her shins just below the knee) or whether some different position might be more appropriate. Miss Fallon had asked if she might take the girl up to her dormitory and make her lie on her bed to receive the strokes.

Mr Wilkins had given his guarded approval but wanted to know in what position the girl would be made to lie; on her back with her legs up, or on her tummy? The latter, Miss Fallon confirmed. She decided it would be a good idea at this point to describe to him in detail what she proposed to do. She would tell the girl first to remove her shoes, then lie face down on the bed, then pull her skirt up to expose her thighs. Then she would make the girl point her toes and hold her legs tightly together while she administered six hard strokes across the backs of the legs, all well above the knee. She would endeavour to strike evenly across both legs.

The headmaster expressed himself very satisfied with all this. He pointed out a further advantage, namely that Miss Fallon would be able to give the strokes from either side of the bed with equal ease, so it might be a good idea to give three strokes from one side and three from the other, which would help to ensure that one leg did not get off more lightly than the other. Miss Fallon was grateful for this suggestion which she would of course act upon.

Miss Fallon had then pointed out that since the girl was a sixth former she would be wearing stockings. Might it perhaps be a good idea to make her undo her suspenders and push the stockings down to her knees, so that the cane would land on bare skin? She richly deserved it, in Miss Fallon’s opinion. She presumed, she added delicately, that his reservations concerning a bared posterior would not apply to bared legs. He assured her that they would not; in fact, this measure met with his whole-hearted approval.

Mention of bared legs had prompted yet another issue to occur to him. Every form had a gym lesson every day, which they did in vests and knickers. So during the gym lesson the next day, this girl’s stripes would necessarily be on display to the other girls and the gym teacher.

“Serves her right,” had been Miss Fallon’s flinty response. “This young lady has to learn not to flout the school rules, and the extra humiliation will be a very good thing. I hope it will have the added benefit of discouraging the other girls from following her example when they see those six stripes across her thighs. I intend to make them impressive.” The headmaster had expressed himself entirely happy with all this.

“There were special considerations involved in the punishment you refer to,” Mr Wilkins told Mrs Hargreaves.  “And let me tell you, these considerations were discussed carefully and at some length between Miss Fallon and myself before she carried out the punishment. Caroline Crick is a very different case. You may cane her in the dormitory, since you asked her to report to you there, but please make her bend over for it in the usual way. And I think two strokes would be sufficient. Yes, let’s say two strokes. You may take it.” He nodded to the cupboard where the cane was kept.

As she made her way over to it, she asked over her shoulder: “Because she is pretty? Is that why she is only to get two strokes?”

“No. Why do you say that?”

“It’s just that men tend to be more lenient with the prettier girls.” She had by now opened the cupboard, revealing the instrument of punishment hanging from its accustomed hook.

“Not me,” he said firmly.

“On the other hand,” she went on, as though he hadn’t spoken, “With some men, it’s the opposite, isn’t it?”

He made no reply to this. She was clearly being provocative. He watched her reach into the cupboard to retrieve the instrument. Conscious of his gaze, she slowed down her movements and exaggerated them. Then she dropped the cane, which landed on the floor of the cupboard and then fell out onto the floor.  She had obviously done it on purpose and hardly bothered to disguise the fact. The act of bending down to pick it up raised her dress a couple of inches at the back. She looked slyly over her shoulder and laughed at catching him staring at her.

She was playing with him, he realised. Playing with him for her own amusement. He decided now would be a good moment to let her know of the unsavoury discoveries he had made.

As she closed the cupboard and turned to leave, he said: “The agency forwarded to me two testimonials for you, Mrs Hargreaves.”

She stopped uncertainly and half turned.

“One from a Miss Moreland and the other from a Mrs Latimer. Miss Moreland was supposed to be the manager of a nursing home. I can find no trace of her existence. Mrs Latimer certainly does exist and I managed to talk to her on the telephone. She says she dismissed you from her school. She says that your qualifications, such as they are, seem to be genuine and that you were perfectly competent at your job. But she explicitly refused you a reference and therefore the testimonial you gave the agency must be a fake. Your behaviour, she said, was arrogant and offensive. You were manipulative. You specialised in finding out embarrassing secrets about other members of staff and indulging in petty blackmail. By the end of a few months you had managed to create considerable discord throughout the school. Last but not least, small sums of money went missing. What have you to say to that?”

Mrs Hargreaves had gone red and then pale. “She said I was competent at my job,” she pointed out.

“She did. I find that believable but I also find those other things believable. Very believable.”

Mrs Hargreaves dropped her femme fatale act altogether now, realising it would do her no good at all. “I promise I won’t behave like that here if you let me stay on.”

“I regard your promise as worthless,” he told her. “I intend to use another method to persuade you to behave. Bring me the cane.”

Mrs Hargreaves had forgotten she was still holding it. She gazed down at it for a few seconds, as though she was seeing it for the very first time. Then she walked over to him and handed it over.

“You know the required position. Please adopt it.”

“You want me to pull my dress up and bend over?” She spoke in a low voice, as though they were in danger of being overheard.

“Exactly. I am going to give you the maximum of six strokes.”

“But I haven’t done anything,” she protested.

“Really?” he asked sceptically.

She remained silent.

“Since you arrived in this school you have been arrogant, defiant and uncooperative. And whatever else you have done, you certainly used deception to get your post here. If I was minded to delve further into your past, I wonder what I would find.”

This last sentence made her blood run cold. He simply must not pry any further into her past. She desperately needed another few months in this sleepy rural back-water, performing a role that none of her former associates would suspect of her, before making her next move, which was likely to be as far away from England as possible. Australia perhaps.

As it happened, the willing cooperation of Mr Wilkins was essential to her current plan. She’d thought she had him wrapped round her little finger without him realising it. She had obviously underestimated him. She decided that the only thing she could do was to pretend to submit for the moment, after which she would set about once more trying to gain the upper hand.

“I promise I will be a good girl from now on and do everything you tell me without a fuss,” she said. By humiliating herself verbally in this fashion she hoped to escape a beating.  But it was not to be.

“Then please demonstrate it by doing what I have just told you to do,” he said.

Mrs Hargreaves resigned herself to her fate. She stooped down, grasped the hem of her dress and began pulling it up her legs. When her hands encountered her petticoat she included that too. Stocking tops came into view, then a couple of inches of bare thigh, then knickers, then suspender belt. All the underwear could legitimately be described as ‘lingerie’, rather than merely ‘underwear’. She bent over and placed her hands on her knees.

Mr Wilkins tapped gently on the back of the hand nearest him with the tip of the cane. “Your hands should be below your knees, not on them,” he said. “We went through all this. I hope you remember it when you give the cane yourself. Also, your feet should be together.”

She moved her hands down. Then she looked down at her feet and saw that they were only an inch apart. She felt a surge of anger. She was on the point of asking him what earthly difference he thought it made if she just kept her feet where they were. But she thought better of it and moved them tightly together, so that the inner sides of her high-heeled shoes were pressed against each other.

Mr Wilkins stood back and ran a critical eye over her, finally concluding that there was no further fault to be found with her posture. His eyes came to rest on the frilly purple knickers stretched tightly over her shapely bottom.

“I think you have had something like this coming to you for quite a while,” he said.

She looked up at him over her shoulder as he bent the cane into a tight arc and let it spring straight again. At this sight, without thinking, she brought her hands away from her legs. They reached not much further than the backs of her knees before she recollected herself and forced them back into the correct position again.

“I wonder if you know what happened to a girl a couple of weeks ago who just couldn’t keep her hands where they should be,” he said. “Have you heard the story?”

“No,” she said. She had in fact heard it but she thought she knew what would happen if she admitted it, namely that he would require her to repeat the whole thing out loud to him, a humiliation that she wished to avoid. Her denial saved her from that possible humiliation but the inevitable consequence was having to listen to it all over again from Mr Wilkins.

“This girl would not keep her hands in the required position while she was being caned by one of the junior mistresses. She was sent up to the senior mistresses’ staffroom where she was made to adopt the punishment position for the remainder of the morning. Then she was sent back to receive the rest of her caning.”

“I will stay like this until you have finished, Mr Wilkins,” said Mrs Hargreaves meekly.

“Please do.”

These words were followed by six vigorous swishes. He left an interval of about three seconds between strokes, as though he was waiting to see if she would be tempted to bring her hands away again. She wasn’t.

“Stand up and face me,” he told her after the last one.

When she did so, she kept her hands clasped to the seat of her knickers. It meant that her skirt and petticoat remained hoisted around her waist but she didn’t care. There was no suggestion from her now of that provocative arrogance that she had displayed earlier. More to the point, she did not feel like that any longer, either. The beating had had its intended effect. Mr Wilkins was satisfied that the eyes now gazing at him conveyed a sincere message of respectful obedience.

“From now on, Mrs Hargreaves, I expect you to behave yourself. If I get any reports that you have been stirring up trouble, or I have any suspicion that you have been up to no good in any way, I shall thrash you. You will not be given the benefit of the doubt. I will not ask for any explanations and I will not be interested in any excuses. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Mr Wilkins.”

“You may go. You will need to take this with you,” he said, handing her the instrument he had just used on her.

She looked confused.

“For Caroline Crick’s punishment,” he reminded her. “You may, on second thoughts, give her three strokes. Insolence in this school must be discouraged.”

The End

© Hilary Wilmington 2018