A shop girl is caught stealing, and there are consequences. By a new writer to us.
By Hilary Wilmington
“I should have brought an umbrella,” thought Ellen, hearing the rain on the windows. When disaster was about to strike, as it was now, Ellen’s mind had a habit of straying elsewhere, to irrelevant things. She had not responded to Mr Barton’s last question, just sat there in silence. The implications were too awful to contemplate, so she didn’t contemplate them. There were rumours that Mr Barton’s wife had left him because she didn’t want to be the wife of a mere shop manager, although any of the local girls like Ellen would hardly have complained about being married to the manager of the largest (actually, the only) department store in the town. And so young! The wife must be very posh, she decided.
Mr Barton cleared his throat. She could read upside down the title of the file on his desk: Ellen Diana Evans. Mr Barton read to her from it:
‘On two separate occasions, Miss Evans was observed to divert change from a sale transaction into the right pocket of her shop-coat. The first was on the 14th of June. There were a number of coins but the exact amount could not be determined. The second was on the 19th June when our operatives clearly observed that it was a two-shilling coin, taken from the till at the end of a sale, and placed in the right hand pocket of her shop-coat. Both operatives have signed witness statements to this effect. We consider that these statements, together with your own evidence of missing monies from the perfume and make-up counter, are more than sufficient to secure a conviction.’
Ellen felt her stomach turn.
“I think I’m going to be sick!”
“Not here. Go in there,” he told her, pointing to a door at the far end of his office.
She rushed to it and wrenched it open. Kicking it shut behind her with her heel, she lunged for the basin. The sense of relief at being there, in what was presumably his private bathroom, relieved of the prospect of being sick on his carpet in front of him, calmed her a little and she managed to re-exert some control. She retched a couple of times but did not actually vomit. The full awfulness of her situation had hit her now. Where would she be tomorrow? Would she really be ‘out on the street within the day’, which is what her mother had threatened her with ‘if anything happens in this job like happened last year at school and you know what I’m referring to’? She had known. Perhaps she would be allowed a few days, to pack her things and find somewhere to go. It hadn’t been an empty threat, of that she was sure. She had made it in front of Aunt Marilyn (that’s what Ellen called her although she was not her real aunt), whose husband, a local councillor, had interceded on her behalf after what she did at school. (Ellen’s father had departed before she was born and he and her mother had divorced.) She had made a solemn promise to the headmaster that if he left out any mention of the theft she had committed at the school, in his reference for her for this job, she would not give him cause to regret it (‘that it will not come back to haunt me,’ as he’d put it).
Then there was Mr Bruce, their next-door neighbour. All these people would find out and everybody who knew her would find out too because the police were going to arrest her and she would be taken to court and it would be in the newspapers. For several minutes, she kept staring down into the waste-outlet of the basin, as though staring at her own fate.
Mr Barton listened to the sounds beyond the door. They gave him hope. The usual outcome of the previous cases he’d known was that the employee was threatened with arrest and court action and the eventual compromise was that they agreed to resign without the benefit of a reference. However, in the case of Ellen Evans he had allowed his imagination to linger on a scenario in which she sobbed attractively, promised to be a good girl in future and agreed that he should keep a close eye on her. He would stand over her and speak to her sternly. And perhaps he might risk the threat of ‘a good hiding’ if she ever transgressed again.
It was no accident that Derek Barton had seen her stealing in the first place. Ellen Evans was a very attractive girl. He admired the way she looked, the way she moved, the way she spoke. He had worked out vantage points from which he could keep glancing across at her while he pretended to be engrossed in some scheme for re-arranging a display.
It was on one of these occasions that he had first spotted her stealing from the till and, having been alerted, he could tell almost by instinct if she was about to do it again. She did it frequently, usually just small amounts. There was something about the set of her body that he came to recognise and a stillness of expression that would come over her features. Then, sure enough, her hand would slyly extract coins from the till and sneak them into her pocket. It was expertly done and so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that no-one else had noticed. He must have observed it a dozen times in the last few months. Therefore, he reasoned, she was probably doing it far more often than that. He had moved her from Ladies Clothing to the perfume counter because he knew that the woman in charge of the latter was quite careless and less likely to notice reduced takings. It had been ridiculous and irresponsible of him, as manager of the shop, but he couldn’t help himself. The only justification he could make up for it was that the perfume counter tended to have fewer transactions than other counters. They were also larger ones, but since he had only seen her steal small amounts, perhaps the shop would lose less as a result.
The usual procedure would have been to get his secretary to contact the firm of private investigators they used. He did contact them but not through his secretary. He went along to visit them personally and he asked them not to post their report. He would come and pick it up himself, he told them, giving the convincing excuse that this was a delicate business because the employee in question was the daughter of a close family friend.
Eventually, the door opened and Ellen re-emerged, white-faced, and walked unsteadily back to where she had been sitting before, opposite his desk. He felt a surge of excitement, a surge of reckless daring. He was going to take this as far as he could.
Ellen sat down. He came over and handed her a glass of water. She took it with a shaking hand and put it to her lips. She couldn’t think where he could have got it from. It was a sympathetic thing to do but when she risked glancing at him over the rim of the glass, the eyes that met hers were anything but sympathetic. She encountered a hard, managerial stare. Any remaining hope she might have had melted away. It was just a matter, she supposed, of going through the necessary formalities. She was resigned to her fate.
“Can I just ask you something?” He said.
“Why have you been doing this? Are you desperate for money?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. I suppose so.”
“You are not making much sense. Have you ever done something like this before?”
There was a long silence before she answered. Then she said: “Yes. At school.”
“At school?” He sounded surprised. “Were you caught?”
“But I got a reference for you from your headmaster. He said you were honest and reliable.”
“He said I wouldn’t get a job otherwise.”
“Very true. Certainly not here. But why on earth do you think he agreed to write that untruth?””He had punished me for it already and I promised…” She trailed off and slumped back in her chair.
“Sit up straight!” Startled, she sat bolt upright. “Tell me what you promised.”
“I promised him I wouldn’t do anything like that again.”
It seemed superfluous to point out that she had broken that promise, so he pursued a question of more interest to him.
“What was your punishment?”
“I got the cane.”
Derek Barton could feel his heart beat faster.
“Good. Where did you get it?”
“In his office. We didn’t get caned in front of the class in our school.”
“I actually meant, where on you.”
“Oh. On my hands.”
“Hm.” He didn’t sound best pleased.
“I got six strokes,” she told him. “Three on each hand.”
“It obviously wasn’t sufficient. I’m afraid you were let off too lightly.”
Ellen had been answering mechanically, without really concentrating. Now it occurred to her that he was showing a great interest in how exactly she had been punished at school. Perhaps it would be worth paying more attention.
“Also, my mother got our neighbour to give me the strap.”
“Hm. Punished you even more leniently, in other words.”
Ellen opened her mouth to protest. The opposite was true. That strapping had been the worst punishment she had ever received. She had been sore for at least two days afterwards. Her mother had strapped her a number of times over the years but this time she’d said she wasn’t up to what was needed so she had asked Mr Bruce to do it. Mr Bruce was an ex-policeman and a strong disciplinarian. The caning, on the other hand, had been much easier to bear. Miss Feltham, who usually caned the girls, had been off sick and the headmaster decided to do it himself. When he’d told her to hold out her hand, she had held it up high so the cane couldn’t be travelling so fast when it landed. Miss Feltham would have told her to lower it but the headmaster didn’t and when he’d asked for the other hand she’d held it even higher.
Ellen was thinking properly now. She realised that to protest the strapping had been worse than the caning would do nothing to help her cause with Mr Barton. It was true, but what use would it be? She considered for a few moments what she should say instead. She needed something that would be helpful in her predicament. She nearly considered too long. She saw that he was about to speak again so she got in quickly.
“The strapping was very embarrassing because he did it on my bottom,” she said. “On my bare bottom. It was very humiliating.” She shot a sidelong glance up at him to gauge his reaction. She saw his face redden and his jaw clench.
But all he said was: “You were younger then, of course, and you’ve left school now. There are different punishments for grown-ups.”
“Boys of my age get the birch,” she protested. “I saw one in the papers a few days ago. He was from somewhere round here and he got twelve strokes.”
“Well deserved, I’m sure. Unfortunately I don’t have a birch to hand.” Her glimmer of hope faded, but it revived when he continued. “However, this shop does sell punishment canes, downstairs in the hardware department, as you probably know.” She hadn’t known, but her glimmer of hope became a flame. Why would he say this if it wasn’t relevant? “They are designed just for family use, of course. They wouldn’t be considered sufficient for judicial purposes.”
She didn’t know what to say to this, so she didn’t say anything. There were a few moments of silence.
Then he said: “Stand up and come over here.”
She got up quickly and walked the short distance over to him. She kept her eyes cast down, looking at a spot on the surface of his desk, and waited for him to speak.
“I propose to borrow one of the canes from downstairs and give you twelve strokes with it, Miss Evans,” he informed her. “They’ll hurt but probably not enough, considering your age and your crime. However, I propose to compensate by adding some more of that other ingredient you mentioned yourself, just now. You will therefore receive them undressed and I intend to ensure that your punishment is as undignified as possible. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Do you wish me to spell it out for you?”
She shook her head.
“Very well. I want to know within the next few minutes whether you wish to choose this private alternative and keep your job, or whether I should set the usual wheels in motion, with the police and so on. You can take this offer or leave it. I’m not willing to discuss it any further.”
Ellen did not need a few minutes. She did not need any time at all.
“Anything!” It came out in an intense, almost fierce, whisper. “Anything,” she repeated out loud. “So long as it can be kept private and I can keep my job.”
“It shall be and you shall. Now go and sit down again. We need to work out how to arrange this.”
Ellen returned to her seat and waited once more.
“The shop closes in half an hour,” he said, after a few moments’ thought.
The clock on the wall read half past eleven. It was Wednesday, which meant half-day closing.
“Your colleagues will be going down to the Ladies Cloakroom at twelve o’clock to get their things and leave. If you don’t go down there, will there be anything to tell them that you have not left the building?”
Ellen thought carefully. Her dress and her handbag were inside her locker, which she had locked. The key was in the pocket of her shop-coat. Normally, before leaving, she would hang her shop-coat in the locker, put her dress back on (the women wore their shop-coats over their petticoats) and after she’d retrieved her handbag she almost always locked the locker again. Even shop-coats had been known to disappear. Even if one of her friends tried her locker door, they wouldn’t think it odd that it was locked. Ellen shook her head.
“Good. When you leave this room, go in to Mrs Cathcart (his secretary) and tell her I have given you permission to leave because you are unwell.” Ellen still looked pale and shocked, so this would be entirely convincing. “Ask her if she would please inform Miss Rollings (the manageress of the perfume counter). Then, when you reach the stairs, instead of going down to the cloakroom, go up, right up to the top, to the attic. Wait for me in the room at the end. I should be up there by half past twelve, if not sooner. People like to get away sharpish on a Wednesday. I generally work on at my desk so Mrs Cathcart will not be curious about me staying. If you can think of anything wrong with this plan, anything liable to raise suspicion, you must tell me.”
“No sir, nothing.”
“Very well then, go.”
Ellen was quite familiar with the attic. It was used as extra storage when the basement storage rooms became inconveniently full. It was only used for lighter items, including goods for the perfume and make-up counter. Miss Rollings often sent Ellen or Gillian (her fellow-assistant on the counter) to fetch stock which was running low at the counter. In fact, often you had to go first down to the basement to see if it was there and then, if it wasn’t, all the way up four flights of stairs to the attic to check whether someone had put it up there.
Staff were not normally allowed to use the lifts. Miss Rollings usually said something like: “Your legs are younger than mine,” when she sent one of them off on such an errand.
Once, when she’d said this to Ellen, Gillian had whispered: “And they’re nicer than hers as well,” which had been a real compliment because actually Miss Rollings had quite good legs.
Neither Gillian nor Ellen minded these errands because they were an opportunity to skive. She would wander around the two attic rooms, poking into things and perhaps trying on clothes she found and then spend some time adjusting her make-up in the small lavatory on the mezzanine landing on the way down.
This was where she was now, peering into the mirror. She had ‘the Carter good looks’ as she’d heard someone describe it. Carter had been her mother’s maiden name. Actually, the face that looked back at her from the mirror was not strikingly pretty or beautiful. Its features were even and pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary. The woman had not been wrong though. The Carter good looks had more to do with the figure than the face. She had been aware of Mr Barton’s gaze upon her as he did his rounds of the shop. She took it in her stride.
Male interest was something she had been used to since reaching her teens. She found it gratifying and flattering and sometimes amusing too. A familiar pattern was that a male eye would take her in, quite neutrally at first, perhaps glancing back again at her a few more times, before the gaze locked on with suddenly heightened interest, when its owner realised the quality of what he was looking at (as she privately and rather immodestly described it to herself). She loved it when she observed this happening.
Ellen took a small hairbrush out of a pocket of her shop-coat and gave her hair a good brush. The colour had returned to her face. The prospect of what was going to happen might be awful, but it was nothing like she’d thought she was facing under an hour ago. It was just the price she was going to have to pay in order for life to go on as before. Another lucky escape.
She looked at her watch; twenty past twelve. She’d better get along to the room. She walked up to the top of the stairs and turned right along to the room at the end. Only part of the top storey consisted of attic rooms. The rest was just loft space. This was the only room lit by daylight, from a large skylight on the sloping roof. She had hardly closed the door behind her when she heard his step on the stairs below.
From the way he’d spoken of it, she’d expected the cane to be smaller. It actually looked very similar to Miss Feltham’s. It was about the same length and was a similar pale yellow colour, with a curved handle. He advanced into the room.
“Come and stand here, in front of me. Have you got anything to say before we begin?”
She shook her head.
“Remove your shop-coat then.”
She started with the top button and worked her way down. She made no attempt to stop the two sides parting company as she did so, knowing that a bare neck and a strip of white petticoat was not all she was going to reveal. She shrugged the shop-coat off her shoulders and pulled her arms from the sleeves. He took the garment from her and draped it over a packing case next to him. Next he told her to take off her petticoat. She bent down and grasped the hem with both hands, crossing them as she did so. Then she pulled it up. When her hands reached the level of her neck, she caught sight of his expression.
She had never exposed this much of herself in front of a man before. There had been fumblings in the back seat of a car with her bra unhooked, and when Mr Bruce had strapped her, he’d dragged her skirt up and taken her knickers down. But she had never before stood, in full daylight, displaying herself to a man in only her underwear. Reflected in Mr Barton’s eyes was confirmation of how good she looked.
As she hauled the petticoat on up over her head, it got stuck and she took her time extricating herself. Just for a moment, it was a pleasant feeling, having her face hidden inside her petticoat but knowing that all the while he was feasting his eyes on her hour-glass figure. When the petticoat was finally off, it was inside-out and she started to get it back the right way, thinking that this was not something she would want to be doing afterwards. He was content to watch her as she did this. When she was finished she handed it over, whereupon it joined the shop-coat on the packing case.
“Take off your knickers.”
She pinched the waist-elastic at each side between finger and thumb and pulled her knickers down to her ankles. Getting them off over her feet was awkward (she usually took her shoes off first) and she lost her balance when she snagged them on the heel of one shoe. He reached out and helped her, enclosing her upper-arm in his strong fingers until she regained her balance. As she rose back up, she handed the knickers over with one hand while she brought the other to her front to protect her modesty.
“Now take off your bra.”
This was humiliation, pure and simple. Every layer of clothing that she had removed so far (shop-coat, petticoat and knickers) had provided protection for her bottom. But taking off her bra had nothing to do with making the cane hurt more. It was nothing but humiliation and could not be interpreted in any other way. She also needed both hands to do it. She put them up behind her back and fumbled for the catch. There were two hooks to undo. The lower one she managed without difficulty, but the higher one proved resistant and it took a few seconds struggling before she managed it. Once it was free, she allowed the shoulder straps to fall down her arms and the cups fell from her breasts. He laid the bra on the growing pile.
Her pallor had now been replaced by a deep blush which she could feel spreading down to her breasts, which she shielded as best she could with her left arm while her right hand resumed its position lower down. She waited for the order to remove her shoes and stockings, but it never came.
“Go and stand under the skylight,” he told her.
She was under no illusions about why she had not been made to strip completely. In these circumstances, stockings and suspenders counted as decoration only and everyone knew that high heels improved the look of your legs. The skylight was a few steps away. He followed her over to it, flexing the cane experimentally between his hands.
“Fold you arms behind your back.”
After she’d done this, he held the cane horizontally several inches away from her buttocks.
“Push your bottom back so it’s touching the cane. Go on, right back so you can feel it against you. Don’t move your feet.”
The trouble was, he was holding it so far away. She had to bend at the knees in order to get her bottom back far enough, and he moved the cane lower in order to accommodate this. Eventually he was satisfied and he stepped back and to her left. Now it’s coming, she thought. She didn’t know how she was going to be able to stay in this awkward, uncomfortable and unnatural position for twelve strokes.
She looked round over her shoulder so she could ready herself when the cane was about to descend. He caught her eye and she looked down. Then she felt the tip of the cane slide caressingly over the fingers of her right hand, which was still behind her back.
“Keep those arms nicely folded for me.”
She felt the cane touch her back next and slide slowly down. Then up again. The sensation was almost pleasant.
Suddenly the cane struck her bottom. There had been no warning, no indication that that was about to happen. It wasn’t terribly hard, probably because he had done it so swiftly and therefore hadn’t raised it very high, but the sudden sharp sting after the lulling caress was a great shock. She shot upright and stumbled back a couple of steps, clutching at her bottom.
“Oh dear. That’s disobedience, I’m afraid.”
She stared at him in bewilderment, still clutching herself. How had he managed to do it so fast? The cane had been stroking her back a split second before.
“We’re going to have to teach those hands to stay where they’re put. You will receive the next two strokes on them.”
It was perfectly obvious that he had deliberately planned to produce something like this situation with that surprise stroke. He had set it up as an excuse for yet more of that ‘extra ingredient’. He was now standing sideways on to her.
“Hold out your hand.”
She reluctantly put out her left hand for him. She didn’t risk holding it up high. She didn’t think he’d fall for that. He raised the cane but he kept it there, up in the air, while he looked at her in profile. Her breasts, firm and prominent and pointed, were a wonderful sight and Ellen knew it. “Haven’t you heard of gravity?” Aunt Marilyn had joked to her once when they were getting changed to go swimming.
Mr Barton reached out and with his own strong fingers he stretched hers flat, even forcing them downwards a little. Then he brought the cane down in a short arc, with a flick of the wrist and struck her across the palm of her hand. It was quite painful but by no means unbearable.
“Hold out your other hand.”
She offered him her right hand, stretched as flat as she could make it, and it received the same treatment.
“You moved your legs as well,” he said.
He took her by surprise again. He was holding the cane down by his side but with a sudden movement he whisked it up against her left leg. It may have been the fact that he hadn’t had time to aim properly that made it more severe than it was perhaps intended to be. It was aimed at the bare skin just above the top of her stocking and, when it struck, the tip of the cane wrapped round and lashed the skin at the back of her thigh. She squealed and jumped and grasped at the spot with her fingers. Her eyes were closed and her face was contorted. He perhaps realised what had happened and he stood patiently, waiting for her to recover herself.
However, his expression remained hard and pitiless and when she was composed once more, he said: “Put out the other leg for me.”
She turned to face him and then turned a bit further still, so that her right shoulder was towards him. Then she put out her right leg. It felt as though she was showing it off for him. Instead of resisting this feeling she went even further and put her hand to her hip, the way she’d seen models do. She closed her eyes and braced herself but this one didn’t hurt nearly as much. He took careful aim and brought it down with a backhand action, the tip of the cane staying further round to the side on this leg.
“I haven’t finished with those legs yet,” he told her. “Stand up straight, feet together. Put your hands on your head.”
Then he stepped round to the back of her and contemplated her figure from behind. Ellen was glad she had checked the seams of her stockings earlier. She was confident they were perfectly centred, perfectly straight and perfectly parallel. As if in confirmation of this, she felt the tip of the cane tracing the path of each seam, first one and then the other, all the way from ankle to thigh. Then it came. He gave her a stroke across the backs of her thighs, caning her through the dark weave of her stocking tops. It was a hard stroke. She writhed but kept her hands in place on the top of her head.
“Now bend over and touch your toes.”In her high-heeled shoes, it was not possible for her to do this while keeping her legs straight.
“Can I bend my knees?” She asked.
“No. Hold your ankles instead.” She could manage this. “You are due another six strokes. Stay in position for them and don’t move your hands from your ankles. You are going to feel these. I won’t have you stealing from my shop again. Do you understand?”
Nothing more was said for the duration of these six strokes. He did not linger over them as he had the previous six, but neither did he hurry. They were delivered with a deliberate, measured rhythm, each one carefully aimed and executed. The pitter-patter of rain on the skylight formed a continuous, gentle background to the swish, whine and crack which occurred at regular intervals until her beating was completed.
“You may stand upright.”
She rose and he went and stood directly behind her again, to have a good look at the results. She had started crying at about the third or fourth stroke and she was still crying now. She made an effort to bring herself under control. She longed to bring her hands round and rub her bottom but she felt she shouldn’t when he was so obviously inspecting it. But she did eventually ask.
“Can I? Could I…?” She couldn’t bring herself to say the words, but she brought her hands half way round to indicate what she meant.
“No. Place your hands on top of your head.”
Oh no! She left her hands where they were, trying to think of a way to plead with him to let her off this. She heard a warning swish through the air behind her, however, and she quickly complied.
“When you hear the door shut behind me, you may get dressed again and leave. Make sure you are on time for work tomorrow and remember not to steal from this shop again, or from anywhere else for that matter.”
Mercifully, it was only a few moments before she heard him walk to the door and shut it behind him.
© Hilary Wilmington 2016