A new girl’s attempts to improve the living conditions in CJ house backfires.
By Tara Patterson
Holly Elliot felt like a fish out of water. At the age of eighteen, she was the new girl starting as a border in the upper sixth form at Queen Anne’s School, Ambleside. Her father worked for a large American manufacturing company and, after successfully turning around the Peterborough factory, he had suddenly been transferred to Iowa to work his magic on the company’s failing tractor plant. This surprise move meant a total relocation for all of the Elliot Family except Holly. Although Holly’s father’s company were very generous in paying a relocation package to the family, Holly was unable to continue her studies in the local girl’s grammar school as her family were unable to fund accommodation in the nearby town. However, a twist in the corporate expense rules meant that the Elliot’s were able to enrol Holly as a border at Queen Anne’s to complete her A levels. Holly was quite tall for her age, she had an athletic, slender figure with short straw blonde hair. As she was a little short sighted she always wore a pair of geek glasses.
“I thought I’d seen the last of school uniform when I started in the sixth at the High School and what a pain this one is too,” Holly grumbled to herself as she lifted up her gymslip and adjusted her suspenders and stockings. Holly had been billeted in a single room on the upper floor of CJ house, Queen Anne’s girls’ boarding block. Her room was cold and sparsely furnished; Holly thought that it had the feeling of a prison cell. The girls on Holly’s corridor were very friendly and welcomed Holly as they shared tea, toast and cake in the small kitchen opposite Holly’s room. Holly still felt the outsider though; many of the girls on her landing had been friends for years. It was going to take something special for Holly to be truly accepted into the group.
The first half term passed without much incident as far as Holly was concerned. She soon adapted to the ways of Queen Anne’s but two things bugged her, two things she couldn’t get use to. The first was the early mornings.
Although she had grown up in a village and should have been used to early starts in order to catch the school bus, Holly was still bad at getting up on time. Back at home she still relied on her Mum to wake her gently and make sure she wasn’t late. At Queen Anne’s it was different: Holly hadn’t been in the school a week when she overslept and had to be woken by a Prefect. Anna Kaput showed Holly no mercy as she burst into the room and dragged the covers off an unsuspecting Holly before throwing a cold and very wet flannel at her face.
“The next time I’ll just tip you out of bed,” laughed Anna as Holly screamed and woke up with a start.
The other thing was the showers; they were cold, well cold to Holly. The changing room showers were fine but the showers in CJ house were barely warm. Holly put up with things until half term but this was bad. She could cope with being away from her family, even being tipped out of bed, but being cold, especially in the shower, was getting too much.
In early November one of the girls on Holly’s landing turned sixteen. As a celebration, a group of the girls piled into Willow’s room to mark her birthday. As they all chatted, Holly noticed a loud knocking noise coming from above the ceiling. Holly still felt cold. She pulled a blanket around her legs and muttered: “No wonder it’s cold in here, the heating wants bleeding.”
“What do you mean Holly?” Asked Willow as she looked up from her birthday cards. “You have noticed the noise. It always does that. I bet someone is having a shower. It’s the downside of having this room; you hear every noise every time someone uses the bathroom.”
Holly got up from the bed.
“Back in a moment, I’ll just be in the corridor.”
Five minutes later Holly returned and re-joined the group. A smile beamed across her face.
“I’ve sussed it, thanks Willow. I bet the heating boiler and hot water tank is above your room. I hadn’t noticed before but that’s what I’ve been looking at. Out there is a trapdoor in the ceiling above your door. If one of us could get up there I bet we could turn up the hot water, no more cold showers.”
“And since when did you become the plumbing expert?” Snapped Sam Barratt, another of the sixth form girls who sat curled up on Willow’s bed.
“Since my year 11 work experience, actually,” replied Holly with some pride. “Dad wanted me to do something practical so he got me a placement with one of our old neighbours. He was the manager of a department in the council that repaired the council houses, and I spent two weeks with a plumber fixing heating systems ready for winter.”
“Ok then, Miss Plumber, what have we got to do?”
* * *
Two days later,Holly was in the communal bathroom cleaning her teeth. It was just before lights out. The bathroom was full of steam from the hot showers. Sam Barratt stepped out of the shower cubical in a pink towelling robe. As she slipped her flip flops on to her feet, she smiled at Holly.
“Lovely, so much better.”
“They are, aren’t they?” Smiled Holly. “No wonder they were cold. When I found the setting on the boiler it went from one to nine. It was set on three, so I turned it up to seven. I didn’t want us to be too greedy though. I don’t fancy going up there again. It was a little tight. Thanks for the bunk up, I couldn’t have got up there without your help.”
All went well for several weeks. The girls on the upper south corner of CJ house got quite used to having hot showers, until that fateful Friday when Holly once again was late up.
It was Friday the 13th. Holly wasn’t late enough up to warrant being rudely awakened by the prefects, but as usual she was one of the last in the queue for the shower. Holly stripped off in the plain cubical and, without thinking, wound open the single tap. She screamed from the shock; the water was cold, not the tepid half warm half cold that the shower had been before but ice cold, as cold as Anna’s ‘wake up’ flannel.
* * *
It was now Sunday afternoon. The girls from the upper south corner of CJ house all hung around in the main hall. Matron Taylor had instructed them all to go to the hall instead of the time being their own for sports or study.
“I wonder why we are all here?” Asked Holly.
“It’s probably the bathroom or the kitchen again,” surmised Willow. “No doubt it’s not clean enough or something is out of date in the fridge. Matron has a moan about it once in a while. Who’s on domestics this week?”
Sam started to impersonate the old Matron.
“Now when I was in the Navy, back when Nelson was a lad…”
With that the Hall door opened and Matron Taylor swept in, followed by under Matron Patterson. The two members of the school medical staff were both dressed in their usual uniforms, Matron Taylor in blue and Under Matron Patterson in Maroon. Matron Taylor had a look of thunder on her face.
“Come on then, girls, line up, room order, in front of the stage, you had better all be here.”
“Cripes, she’s angry,” whispered Willow to Holly. “Someone is in for a whacking.”
As the girls lined up, Matron Taylor paced up and down the line examining their uniforms. When she was happy the girls were in position and all present she began to address the group.
“Right then. ladies, what a time to get together. I’m sure you have all got better things to be doing. I certainly have, so let’s not be here too long, shall we? We are here to get to the bottom of a problem that has occurred in your bathroom. No doubt you have all enjoyed the improved temperature of the showers. But I have had complaints that they are very cold, which is strange as your block has been using more heating oil than usual. So I called out Mr Benson to have a look. He reported that the thermostat has been tampered with. Someone has turned up the temperature. This is a very selfish thing to do. Yes, the water may be warmer at first, possibly for the first few showers, but eventually it runs out. That is why it was set where it was. To make the warm water last economically, to give all users a reasonable supply of acceptable water for a shower. So, ladies, please. I know that only your rooms use that bathroom so I want to know who it was that went into the roof space and tampered with the heat settings.”
The girls looked at each other, no one moved.
“I will find out, sooner or later,” snapped Matron Taylor. “If no one owns up then I will get the showers turned off until someone does. Then you would all have to make do with a daily strip wash, and a five minute bath once a week, just like I had to do when I was a schoolgirl. Is that what you want?”
Suddenly a voice spoke up at the end of the line. One of the fifth year girls who Holly didn’t get on with spoke up. She was smirking as she spoke.
“It was that new girl, Matron. Holly Elliot went up in the loft. I saw her do it. She has mucked it up for the rest of us. Why don’t you make her have cold washes, not the rest of us?”
Holly gasped. She tried to think of an excuse but Matron looked her straight in the eye.
“Is this true, Elliot?”
“Y-yes, Matron,” stammered Holly. “It was all my idea. I hate cold showers so I thought I was doing the girls a favour. I guess I’m in rather a lot of hot water now, aren’t I?”
Matron smiled at Holly’s attempt at humour.
“Yes, you are, and you too, Miller. How many times have I told you all the idea of these line ups is to give the guilty parties an opportunity to admit their wrongs? It’s not a chance for others to snitch on them. We have had words before about you telling tales on your fellows. You seem to take pleasure in seeing others get in trouble. That smirk says it all. It’s up to me to decide who gets punished and how. I think you ought to go and see Miss Meanwood.”
Poppy Miller gasped. “But Matron, it’s Elliot who ought to go, not me. She messed with the heating. What have I done?”
“Miller, Miss Meanwood’s study NOW!” Ordered Matron Taylor.
The smirk was soon gone from Miller’s face as she slowly began to walk down the hall. She knew she would be facing the cane. Matron only sent girls to the deputy headmistress if they were going to be caned.
“Was it just you, Elliot?” Asked the Matron.
“Yes, Ma’am, it was all my idea,” sighed Holly. Something inside her felt that she ought to take the full wrap for the crime.
Matron addressed the rest of the group.
“Okay, then. Now I have found who is responsible, you are all dismissed. Elliot stay here, the rest of you will spend the rest of the day cleaning your bathroom and kitchen. They are both filthy. I will be around later to inspect, so I am expecting them cleaned to Navy standard. I want to be able to see my face in those tiles when I look in them later. Miss Patterson will supervise.”
As the rest of the girls left the hall, some of them smiled at Holly and one or two whispered words of encouragement and thanks for not incriminating them. Matron Taylor stood in front of Holly; they were both of a similar height. The Matron looked Holly straight in the face.
“Right then, Elliot.” Began Matron Taylor. “It’s time for an explanation. In case you haven’t learnt by now, I’ve been around a bit. Thirty years as Matron and seven years as a pupil here, so I can assure you I know and have seen every dodge, trick, cheat and scam that goes on in these dormitories. In fact, I myself have been slippered or strapped for participating in a number of them. I know you feel the outsider, it’s hard to fit in as the new girl especially if you join in the sixth, but there is no excuse for tampering with the settings on the heating equipment no matter how noble your motives were, or were you doing it just to impress the girls?”
“N-no, Matron,” stammered Holly. “I did it purely to have a warm shower. I meant no harm. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. Yes, I’m finding it tough to fit in. I get so lonely here. All the others have their close friendships. I hate it being the outsider. I just miss my home comforts. Is it a crime to just want to be warm for a while?”
Matron’s mood softened a little.
“In a way, I do sympathise with you. One of my friends in the Nursing Corps was like you. She felt home sick and alone and would cry herself to sleep at night. We didn’t get on at first but eventually something drew us together and we became close friends. We still are. Take Miller, she’s another good example. She joined us last year and still doesn’t fit in. She thinks that fighting the system and getting the rest of you in trouble is the way to survive. She might come across as being strong and all tough, but inside she is a lonely sad little girl who needs a close friend to help her through. I’m sure you would see a different side to her if she stopped fighting.”
As she spoke, Matron Taylor removed her leather strap from her belt. Holly felt sick. She had yet to be punished at Queen Anne’s; in fact she couldn’t even remember being smacked by her parents.
“No doubt you have heard about this, Elliot.” Said the Matron. “Unfortunately I feel that what you have done warrants six strokes of my strap. It’s a pity. I was rather hoping, given your age and the glowing reports I have read from your old school, that you would be able to get through your time here without encountering a strapping.”
Holly gulped and took a deep breath.
“I really have mucked up, haven’t I? Look, Ma’am, I don’t usually get in trouble like this,. A-are you going to strap me now, or have I got to wait?”
“Now, I’m afraid, Elliot.” Matron’s way seemed caring, almost like she knew how Holly was feeling. “It’s always best to get things over with. I’m going to ask you to bend over this table. Grip the legs firmly. I shall then lift up your gymslip and remove your knickers before I administer the six strokes. Please stay in position until I have finished. Do not move, or straighten up, till you are told. I must warn you that moving or making too much fuss or noise will mean penalty strokes. It’s best if you stay still and be strong. Now, take off your hat and blazer and bend over the table, please Elliot.”
Holly still felt sick. She laid her hat and blazer on the school stage and stretched over a wooden desk at the side of the hall. She felt Matron lifting her gymslip and pulling her knickers down her legs.
“Ready, Ma’am.” Holly muttered.
The sharp sting of the first two strokes took Holly’s breath away.
“OWWW! Arrgh!” Cried Holly, as she began to sob.
Another two hard strokes.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. Arrgh!”
“Owww! Stop, please,” cried Holly. She wanted to get up. Something inside her was telling her to run. she had never felt pain like it.
“One more to go, Elliot,” encouraged Matron Taylor.
Matron delivered a hard blow, the strap landing on Holly’s right buttock. Holly screamed and then collapsed over the table sobbing. She didn’t care; she felt so helpless and alone.
“It’s all over, Elliot,” came a soft voice from behind. “You may get up now.”
Holly stiffly stood up and turned to face the Matron.
“Let’s hope this is the only time we have to meet like this, Elliot,” said the matron with a sympathetic smile. “A nice hot bath should soothe the pain.”
Holly looked on with surprise as Matron held out her hand. As Holly gingerly shook Matron’s hand, Matron Taylor spoke.
“In some ways, I have to congratulate you for your ingenuity on this one. I take it the water was turned up for several weeks before we found you out. Much more successful than when I got involved in a similar scam at Yeovilton, back in the 70s. The girl who went up in our roof space put her foot through the ceiling. I got caught by the sister trying to repair the hole with some plaster of Paris that we had borrowed from the fracture clinic. Imagine the fuss that caused. The girl that did it was the one who I said used to cry herself to sleep in basic training. We still smile about ‘Watergate’ when we meet up now.”
* * *
Holly stumbled out of the hall and began the long walk back to CJ house. Her bottom was sore. As she walked, Holly could feel her suspenders chafing the tender skin beneath them. As she rounded the corner into the dining room, Holly heard a faint sobbing. Poppy Miller was leaning on the wall with her hands underneath her gymslip on her bottom. Her face was red and tears rolled down her cheeks. Holly forgot her own discomfort and remembered what Matron had said about Poppy being lonely. She moved over to the sobbing third year, and in a sisterly way put her arm around Poppy’s shoulder.
“Come on, Poppy, no hard feelings. We have both had a hard time this afternoon. I think we both need a friend right now. What we need is chocolate. I’ve got some hidden in my room. Let’s let bygones be bygones and help each other from now on.”
© Tara Patterson 2015