A school secretary explores her relationship with the headmaster
By Hilary Wilmington
“Mrs Burford, you were late again this morning,” said Mr Clements.
“I’m sorry, headmaster,” said Lucy Burford, “It is just that my bus is supposed to get in at eight thirty-five and usually it is on time, but sometimes it arrives late. There isn’t really anything I can do about it.”
Mr Clements remained silent, which probably made a greater impression on Lucy than anything he might have said. She had only been working for him for three weeks and she was quite in awe of him. Not that she minded being in awe of him. It seemed perfectly proper to her. This was her very first job, despite the fact that she was over thirty years old now. She had got married just before getting her secretarial qualifications and the three children had soon followed in quick succession. Considering her lack of experience and the length of time that had elapsed since her training, she had been lucky to get this job as school secretary. The money would be very useful and she and her husband were already planning a more ambitious holiday than they had ever had before.
The problem with the bus was awkward. She was supposed to start work at eight forty-five (the pupils came in at nine) and the school was a five-minute walk from where she got off the bus. So, in theory she should arrive with five minutes to spare. It was rarely more than a few minutes late. She had thought about getting an earlier bus but that would have meant leaving her house twenty minutes earlier and twenty minutes first thing in the morning was very valuable to her from the domestic point of view.
Mr Clements was a very exacting man towards his staff, to say nothing of his pupils, and she thought that, too, was very proper in a headmaster and she didn’t resent it. She recognised that it was his duty to pull her up on it, but she was blowed if she was going to put herself out so greatly for the sake of guaranteeing her punctuality, and she had never been more than three or four minutes late. She would put up with the unpleasantness, she decided. She had expected life at work to be far more unpleasant than it had in fact turned out to be. She liked Mr Clements as well as respecting him. Although he was very particular, he was also very fair and considerate.
Unfortunately, both today and the day before the bus hadn’t arrived until nearly eight forty-five, so she had been about five minutes late on both days. It was especially unfortunate that today was Friday, when one of her duties was to go through all the attendance registers and note down the names of any girls who had more than one ‘L’ in the row next to their name for that week. In the very first week of term there had been nobody in this category, but last Friday there had been two. They had arrived in her office after lunch to hand in the hundred lines they had each had to write (‘I must not be late for school’).
When she had taken them through to Mr Clements he had asked: “Have you checked them?”
And she’d said: “No, I hadn’t.”
“Check them for me please,” he’d said. “Make sure they have all done the full hundred and that they are legible.”
When she had taken them through to him again later, duly checked, he had tossed them into the waste-paper basket with hardly a glance.
Today there were three names with more than one ‘L’ in the week. In the case of one girl, it was three. Lucy wondered if the numbers would creep up as the term progressed. She felt very self-conscious when she took their completed lines in to Mr Clements. She was sure he would take the opportunity to make some pointed remark about her own lateness. He did not, however. He merely glanced, as he had the week before, at the sheets of writing before throwing them away.
The numbers did go up a bit as the term went on. The following week there were four latecomers and the week after that there were four as well. Lucy herself was on time every day during both these weeks. The following Monday she was two minutes late but he made no comment. However, the week after that she was late on both the Tuesday and the Wednesday.
When she took his coffee in to him on the Wednesday he said: “This is the second day you have been late this week. You had better do a hundred lines; ‘I must not be late for work’.”
Lucy thought it must be a joke. He did sometimes come out with something humorous with a deadpan expression. But she wasn’t certain. Could he possibly actually mean it? Before she could think of any suitable response, he went on to give her instructions about a note she was to write to all the sixth year parents about a performance of a play they were doing. She left his office in a state of confusion.
She was very busy for the rest of that day, but when she got home in the evening she kept re-playing the scene with the headmaster in her mind. ‘I’m certainly not going to do it,’ she thought, at first. Even if he had been serious, it wasn’t legitimate for him to punish her like that. She was an employee, not a pupil. But later on, when the children were in bed and her husband had departed to meet some friends at the pub, she got out a lined pad of paper and a pen. She still had no intention of actually handing them in to him, but it would do no harm to write a few lines. ‘I must not be late for work’, she wrote. The sentence fitted comfortably onto one line of the paper. She wrote it again on the next line. And the next. She surveyed her work so far. She had won a prize for handwriting once at school and she was proud of her style and neatness. She continued.
There were twenty-two lines to a page and she decided only to use one side of each sheet, so she would need five sheets in all. When she had completed the first sheet, she wrote ‘Lucy Burford’ neatly at the top of it before embarking on the next. She found the task both absorbing and relaxing. If anything, her writing became even neater as she went along. She was almost disappointed when she had finished.
She went in search of a ruler and ruled a line under each ‘Lucy Burford’. One of the lines smudged and so she did this page all over again. She put the sheets of paper in her bag, between two stiff pieces of card. She would take them with her tomorrow and keep them at school for a little while. She certainly didn’t want to leave them anywhere in her own home.
Next morning, the bus was punctual and she got straight down to work on the note to all the sixth-year parents. She found that she could fit six repetitions of it on one page, so with two carbon copies that meant it could all be done with two pages of typing. Having guillotined the pages into separate slips, she went to take them through to Mr Clements for his approval.
She hesitated, eyeing her bag. Having written the lines, why let them go to waste? She might as well take them to him. She would make a joke of it. She would assume he had been joking and she would continue the joke by smilingly handing them over, as much as to say: ‘You didn’t expect that!’
In the event, it didn’t work out at all well. She found she was too tense and self-conscious. She handed them over awkwardly, blushing and without managing a convincing smile. He remained unsmiling, looked at them very carefully, examining each sheet in turn, taking several seconds over each one.
“You have very nice handwriting, Mrs Burford,” he said.
“Thank you, headmaster,” she replied.
Instead of tossing the lines into the waste-paper basket, as he usually did, he placed them carefully in a drawer of his desk. Despite how badly it had turned out for her, she felt absurdly pleased about his compliment on her handwriting.
That afternoon, quite late (which meant after three o’clock, because school finished at three-thirty and her working day ended at four), she received a summons to his office.
“My current cane has broken, Mrs Burford. Would you kindly dispose of it?” He asked her. “And find a replacement from the stock-room.” He gestured towards a wall-cupboard to let her know where she would find this item.
Lucy had never seen Mr Clements’ cane before, but she had heard it. The first time had been about a week after she had started at the school. She had been returning to her office after a visit to the Ladies and seen a girl waiting nervously at his door, the one that led directly off the corridor as opposed to the connecting door between her own office and his.
Another girl came by at that moment and Lucy heard her say: “You’re for it now! He’s really angry.”
Soon after, Lucy had regained her desk and continued typing. She heard his door open and close and then she heard his voice, speaking in quiet and measured tones. He didn’t sound at all angry. Intrigued, she stopped typing and listened intently. She could still just hear his voice but could not make out what he was saying. So she took off her shoes, tiptoed over to the connecting door and put her ear to it.
She heard him say: “Hold out your hand.”
Next there was a swishing sound, followed by what must have been the impact of the cane hitting the girl’s hand.
Then: “Hold out the other one.”
She heard the same sequence of sounds, followed by: “You may go.”
Forgetting she had no shoes on, Lucy had hurried out into the corridor where she saw the girl walking slowly back towards her classroom with her hands curled up together beneath her chin. She was crying.
Since then, she had developed almost a sixth sense for when he was about to give the cane. It had something to do with the way he spoke to the girl beforehand. She hoped Mr Clements hadn’t noticed that, if she was typing, she always stopped doing so when he administered corporal punishment. She could never resist tiptoeing over and putting her ear to the door.
On one memorable occasion she had heard a girl who had twice been caught smoking get three strokes on each hand. The girl’s distress had increased as the caning progressed. After the fourth stroke she must have pulled her hand way because she had heard Mr Clements order her sternly to: “Hold it out and keep it out!”
“Oh please sir, not so hard!” The poor girl had sobbed.
In reply, she heard Mr Clements say: “If you cannot keep your hand out, you will have to be punished on another place.”
This must have had the desired effect, because there were two more swishes and that was it. Having heard such dramas from the other side of the door, Lucy was curious to see the implement which played a leading role in them.
When she opened the cupboard she found that the cane was the only object in it. It had a curved handle from which it was hanging on a hook. It was very thin and it was shorter than she had imagined. She reached up and took it down.
“It doesn’t seem to be broken,” she said. Then: “Oh, I see.”
Just taking it down had made it flex a little and she had glimpsed a longitudinal crack in it. Bending it between her hands confirmed that it was actually split along much of its length, which had not been apparent when it was hanging at rest.
“I see,” she repeated foolishly.
She was aware that he was watching her intently. A very silly notion occurred to her, namely that Mr Clements had broken the cane on purpose, in order to be able to watch her doing what she was doing now, even though that didn’t make any sense to her. But if it had really happened accidentally, why hadn’t he just thrown the thing away himself when he’d discovered the split? Why hang it back up in the cupboard?
“So you want me to throw it away?” She asked, putting a slight extra emphasis on the ‘me’.
“Yes, just break it up and put it in a bin,” he said, with a nonchalance that she didn’t quite believe. “You’ll find a new one somewhere in the stockroom. On the shelf above the window, I think.”
Ten minutes later, she was back with the replacement cane.
“It was the last one in the packet,” she reported.
“Ah, you’d better order a new batch then. You’ll find them in the catalogue.”
“Would you mind if I left it until the morning, headmaster?” She asked, as she gingerly hung the new cane on the hook where its predecessor had been. “It’s getting on for four o’clock.”
“Of course, of course, there is no hurry,” he assured her.
Next morning, she found she had to consult him on the matter again. She went in to his office, catalogue in hand.
“I presume you want ones with curved handles, headmaster, rather than straight ones,” she said. “But I’m not sure about the length. They are either 20″, 24″, 28″ or 34″. That last one’s a big jump. It won’t be the 34″, anyway.”
“No,” he replied, “I would only use an instrument of that length for abnormally bad behaviour. And it could not of course be administered on the hands. I don’t foresee ever using one of 34″, but you never know, it might be a good idea to have one.”
“Oh I see,” said Lucy, feeling her face becoming hot. “Well I suppose it will be the 20″ or the 22″, will it?”
“Probably, but I’m not sure which. Get it down again, please, and we’ll measure it.”
Having fetched a measuring tape from her own office, she asked: “Does the length include the handle?”
“I think not,” he said.
“In that case, it will be the 20″ one, I’m sure,” she said.
“Let’s just check,” he said.
He placed his fingers on the slim shaft to hold it steady while she stretched the measuring tape alongside it.
“Yes, 20″, headmaster,” she confirmed. “Shall I order a packet of four or a packet of eight?”
“Four will do.”
Lucy was nearly at the door to her own office before she summoned up the courage to ask the question that was bothering her. Had it been just another of his humorous remarks when he’d said: “You never know, it might be a good idea to have one.”
She said: “You don’t really want me to order a 34″ one, do you headmaster?”
“No, we’d better leave that until it seems absolutely necessary,” he replied. “It might be too much of a temptation to me if it was readily available.”
He smiled, so she knew for definite that he was joking now. She managed an awkward laugh before she departed.
Though the bus continued occasionally to be late, Lucy nearly reached the end of her first term without again being late twice in one week. Nearly, but not quite. In the final week, she arrived late on the Monday and the Thursday, and on the latter day, he said: “That will be another hundred lines, Mrs Burford.”
Her husband was out again that evening, so she was once again able to complete her penance at her leisure, taking just as much care as she had the last time.
Next morning was Friday and there was just one girl who had had two ‘Lates’ in the register. When this girl came in with her lines, Lucy said: “I’ve been looking at the pattern of your ‘Lates’, Tracy. I see you have been late once a week all term. You slipped up this week though!”
“Yes miss, I did, but it doesn’t matter too much. This is the last week of term so there’s no danger of it happening again.”
“How do you mean?” Lucy asked.
“If it happens twice in the same term, miss, you get the cane as well,” the girl explained.
Lucy took Tracy’s lines in to Mr Clements, along with her own. “You’ve checked these, have you?” He asked, holding up Tracy’s lines.
“Yes, headmaster. And here are mine, too.”
He tore Tracy’s in half and tossed them in the waste-paper basket. Then he turned to Lucy’s and, like last time, counted them and examined them with care.
“These are very well done, again,” he said. “A pleasure to look at, in fact. But this is the second time this term that you have had to do them. For that you deserve another form of punishment, in addition to the lines.”
Lucy put her hands together in front of her and looked down at the carpet. By doing this, she gave the game away. He guessed that she knew what she was in for. So, without saying anything more, he went to his wall-cupboard. As he walked back over to her, she continued looking at the carpet but she knew he was carrying what she dreaded to see.
‘I must protest,’ she thought. ‘I mustn’t just let him do it.’
“Hold out your hand,” he said.
She kept her hands by her sides. He did not repeat the order. The tension grew. Then she slowly raised her left hand and held it out. She felt as though she was in the middle of a bad dream and that she would soon wake up to discover that’s all it was.
Unfortunately, it was all too real. He did not seem to use much force, and neither did he. A flick of the wrist was all that was required; the whippiness of the cane did the rest. The swish of it was familiar to her from her listening behind the door, but this time she was too taken up with anticipating the effect of its landing to really notice it. She felt a sudden, shocking, painful sting. She stared at the red line that appeared across her palm.
“Now hold out the other one.”
She obeyed immediately this time. This time it was Mr Clements who paused for a few moments, cane poised above her slim white hand, before giving the second stroke. To her embarrassment, the tears came. It wasn’t that the second stroke hurt more than the first, it was just that crying seemed the natural and appropriate thing to do. It was something to do with the combination of the sting and the shame. All the girls she had heard through the door getting the cane had cried by the end, and now she knew exactly how they felt.
Throughout the rest of the day she kept looking at the red lines across her palms. She would have to be very careful none of her family noticed them that evening. Her mother was coming round too, which reminded her that the only time she had got the slipper at school her mother had spotted the tell-tale red patches on the backs of her legs. Lucy had complained about it to her but she had completely supported the teacher who’d done it. In fact, when her father got home, her mother had demanded that he take her upstairs and slipper her some more, but he had refused, saying he was sure she had been punished enough. Lucy wondered what her mother would think of what had happened to her today, but she had no intention of finding out!
For Lucy, as for the schoolgirls, the next term started with a clean slate. But it was only a matter of time before the bus service let her down again, and again, and she had to face the consequences. She lavished care over her lines. If she wasn’t completely satisfied with a sheet when she finished it, she tore it up and started it again. Notwithstanding the humiliation of doing them, she basked in Mr Clements’ praise of the beauty of her handwriting. The cane was a different matter. There was no solace to be had from being on the receiving end of the object with the curved handle, which hung so innocently from its hook in its cupboard. Every time she was punished with it, it seemed as awful as the first. When the headmaster strode over to the wall-cupboard, her heart would be beating wildly. She couldn’t help wondering what would happen if she ever did something really, really bad.
© Hilary Wilmington 2018