Discipline in a girls boarding school
By Hilary Wilmington
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Roberta Smythe to the four younger girls ranged in front of her in Miss Acrington’s study. Her words were uttered with heavy, unmistakeable sarcasm. These four girls had been anticipating her apology with feelings of triumph, thinking the tables had been turned on their former tormentor. They looked apprehensive now, and more so when she added, in the same tone: “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to apologise to me for sneaking, of course.”
The headmistress’s face was a picture. Her deputy, Miss Denham, carefully avoided eye-contact with her, afraid that her expression would convey the message: ‘I told you so’.
“That is not a proper apology and you know it,” said Miss Acrington icily. “I am going to give you one more chance to say it properly.”
Miss Denham could have told her that wasn’t going to work either. Perhaps Miss Acrington realised it herself, but beneath the glacial exterior she was thoroughly rattled and she couldn’t think of anything else. Her honeymoon period as the new headmistress was rapidly ending. In fact, thought Miss Denham, at this rate her authority was in danger of unravelling altogether. When she had first arrived in the school, all the girls had been in awe of her. She stalked the corridors on high-heeled shoes and appeared in a different outfit every day, each more stylish than the last. She made sweeping pronouncements at assembly about how things were going to change from now on, most of which were, in Miss Denham’s opinion, quite unrealistic. The younger pupils were still lost in admiration but the older ones, especially Roberta and her circle of disaffected friends, were now wondering whether there might not be more show than substance to Miss Acrington. Roberta herself had even gone so far as to boast to her friends that Miss Acrington was ‘a pushover’. She could not have faced them again if she had made the humiliating apology that Miss Acrington was demanding.
The next few moments were spent in silence, apart from one of the four girls mumbling miserably: “We didn’t sneak.”
“I would advise you to think very carefully about what you are getting yourself into, Roberta,” said Miss Denham, thinking she had better add her support. “You will be in a lot more trouble if you don’t take the opportunity to end this now.”
Roberta looked uneasy but remained silent. Two high spots of colour appeared on Miss Acrington’s cheeks.
“Very well girls, you may go,” she said at last. “Roberta, you stay here.”
Miss Denham watched as Miss Acrington raged at Roberta to no avail. She was aware that she herself had a reputation for ‘going on and on’, as she had once overheard one of the mistresses say about her. But Miss Acrington was becoming less and less effective as every new sentence she uttered became more shrill, and made less sense, than the last.
Miss Denham watched as Roberta Smythe became impervious to the tirade, until her features assumed an expression of frank contempt for her new headmistress. Miss Denham was only human and could not resist a little ‘Schadenfreude’ at Miss Acrington’s expense, but mainly she wanted Roberta brought back into line. She itched to do what Miss Acrington apparently had no intention of doing, something strongly suggested by a combination of Roberta’s infuriating expression and the set and shape of her body. She had a narrow waist and she could be described as having an hour-glass figure, so long as the lower part was allowed to be somewhat bigger than the upper part. It could not be better suited to what Miss Denham had in mind. And it would be none too soon.
Already a day had gone by since the girl’s misdemeanours were discovered, without a successful remedy. At this rate, it wouldn’t be just Roberta who would need to feel the firm smack of authority. She had come across a group of sixth-formers the other day, Roberta in the middle of them, chanting: “Glamour puss pushover!” and falling about giggling. Very silly but by no means innocent. It was going to be a big problem if these girls got the whip-hand of the new headmistress. Unchecked, it could lead to a general breakdown of order. She looked on glumly as Miss Acrington eventually ran out of things to say and sent the girl back to her lessons with the issue still unresolved.
“They are particularly difficult this year,” she said diplomatically, once Roberta had departed. “We usually get some trouble with the girls in the sixth who haven’t been made prefects, but a group of girls in this form has been particularly troublesome all the way through the school. Roberta is not the worst of them but this was quite shocking. Extorting money from junior girls. I ask you! I think I had better have a word with Miss Perriman. Roberta got the idea from her lessons on classical history, apparently, and started demanding ‘tributes’ from the juniors. Not that we should censor history of course but Miss Perriman does have a rather too progressive approach. An enthusiasm for the ancients must be tempered with moral judgement from today.”
Miss Denham’s pompous phrases were offset by a hint of humour in her tone, which Miss Acrington took particular exception to. Miss Denham seemed to regard Roberta’s behaviour as faintly amusing rather than absolutely outrageous. And was it her own bruised state of mind or was the observation that Roberta was not the worst of the sixth-formers meant to imply that she would find it even more difficult to discipline some of the others? And was that remark about Miss Perriman a jibe at her own ‘progressive’ views?
“Very kind of you to explain it like that, I’m sure,” said Miss Acrington, acidly.
“I am trying to be helpful,” Miss Denham protested.
Miss Acrington merely said: “You realise, I suppose, that I’m going to have to expel her.”
“The governors wouldn’t like that at all,” said Miss Denham, alarmed. “And neither would the parents. I can’t remember it ever happening in this school. It’s a sort of ‘selling point’, as you might say.”
“I don’t have any choice,” said Miss Acrington. “Surely you can see that. She has openly defied me, in front of other pupils. They would never take any notice of me again.”
“Well, if I may make a suggestion, Miss Acrington, you could cane her,” said Miss Denham.
“You must be joking, Miss Denham. If Roberta refused even to apologise, she is certainly going to refuse to be caned and you needn’t think I’m going to have an unseemly physical struggle with her.”
“I am sure that wouldn’t be necessary,” said Miss Denham confidently. “I would be surprised if she refused it. It would be done in private and she would get sympathy from her friends afterwards, instead of contempt, which is what she would have got if she had apologised. Apologised properly, I mean. The rest of her final year in school would probably have been miserable for her.”
“You seem almost to sympathise with her,” observed Miss Acrington sourly.
“Well, it’s done now anyway. You may be right in what you say but I can’t undo what I did.”
“It’s not too late to salvage the situation, in my opinion.”
“But it is too late,” insisted Miss Acrington. “I ordered her to apologise and she made a mockery of it. I will admit to you within these four walls that I did not handle it well but I can’t simply pretend it never happened.”
“I accept what you say, up to a point,” said Miss Denham. “It is true that at this stage there can be no perfect solution. But you either have to cane her or expel her, in my view. And I would advise against expulsion if you can possibly avoid it.”
Miss Acrington gave a sigh of exasperation. “Well I certainly must take your advice,” she said. “I have been practically ordered to, as you doubtless know.”
“I certainly don’t know,” replied Miss Denham warmly. “Who could have ordered you?”
“The chairman of the governors told me just two days ago that I could implicitly rely on your judgement and I should consult you on all matters until I had ‘found my feet’. I must say I thought I had already found my feet. I don’t know why they didn’t just appoint you to the headship instead of me. They’ll probably be regretting that now anyway.”
“I’m sure they won’t be regretting it,” said Miss Denham, doing her best to appear sincere. “I’m sure you will soon establish yourself and be able to order things as you wish. Meanwhile, please regard me as a source of information about the culture and traditions of the school. I suppose if I were to give you advice it would be that strict discipline is part of the ethos of this school and it is what persuades many parents to send their girls to us. The benefits can be seen in the decent examination results of many girls who would not otherwise have done well and indeed who in other circumstances might have gone off the rails.”
“I’ll take your advice on particular matters because I have to, but I’ll not take lectures from you,” snapped Miss Acrington. There was a moment’s awkward silence. Miss Acrington looked as though she was going to apologise, but she didn’t. Instead, she said in a conciliatory tone: “I expect that is what Miss Gilmour would have done in these circumstances, isn’t it? A caning, I mean. I suppose I ought to consider it.”
Miss Denham felt like retorting that Miss Gilmour (Miss Acrington’s predecessor) would never have found herself in ‘these circumstances’. However, she confined herself to a stiff: “I expect so.”
“My difficulty is that I have told the staff I will be ending corporal punishment in the school,” said Miss Acrington.
“Your words to the staff were, if I remember correctly, that you were ‘intending to phase it out’, so this would not contradict that. You were more definite with the governors, but I don’t think they would be an obstacle.”
“How do you know what I said to the governors?” Asked Miss Acrington sharply.
“Well, I don’t of course, exactly,” said Miss Denham, kicking herself for this thoughtless lapse. Her knowledge had come from Mrs Thorpe, one of the school governors who she got on particularly well with. She had come to a secret agreement with Mrs Thorpe whereby she would report privately to her with her views on how the school was doing under its new headmistress. Mrs Thorpe had supported Miss Denham’s application for the headship and it was from her that Miss Denham had learned how Miss Acrington had got the job because the chairman, in particular, had been very taken with her. Mrs Thorpe had objected that Miss Acrington had been only head of the geography department in her previous (admittedly large and prestigious) school. She had never been a Deputy Head. The chairman had swept away her objections. He had gone on about how it would be an ‘imaginative appointment’, Mrs Thorpe had told her. “Or in other words, a risk,” she’d added sniffily.
“You have used the cane yourself many times, I expect,” said Miss Acrington.
“Well Celia usually did it, while I was the witness. There should be a witness, you know.”
“Oh. Yes. But you sometimes did it?”
“Yes. If there were several girls to be punished, we took it in turns.” For some reason, she felt embarrassed at having put it like that (‘took it in turns’), and she hurried on: “And for a while I had to do it because Ce-…, Miss Gilmour, had sprained her wrist.”
“Giving the cane?”
“Good gracious, no!”
It was Miss Acrington who was embarrassed now. She thought she had revealed herself to be dreadfully ignorant about how much force was appropriate.
It did occur to Miss Denham at this moment that perhaps Miss Acrington had never administered a caning and that that might be at least part of the reason for her reluctance. Perhaps she had never even watched one either. And perhaps, as a schoolgirl, she had not experienced it herself. One couldn’t ask any of these things, especially not the last, but one could make a tactful offer.
“Would you like me to cane Roberta for you?” She asked.
The offer was not well received. “No I would not,” Miss Acrington said. “I am the headmistress and it is up to me to exert my authority. I would be grateful if you would convey a message to Roberta to report to me here immediately.”
“Now?” Miss Denham was surprised and showed it.
“Yes, now. Why not now?”
“Of course, it is entirely up to you to decide how you wish to carry it out. I will get a message to Roberta to come here immediately.”
Miss Denham was nearly out of the door before Miss Acrington’s nerve broke.
“Miss Denham!” She called.
Miss Denham paused at the door. “Yes?”
“Why did you question fetching Roberta right away?”
“I wouldn’t dream of questioning it. I’m going off to get her.”
“No, I mean why were you surprised?” Her tone became almost pleading. “Please, I would like to know.”
Miss Denham came a few steps back into the room. “It’s only that the usual thing here would be to administer the punishment in the evening, so that the girl can go straight off to bed afterwards. But of course you will want to do it in your own way,” Miss Denham said. “In the way that you are used to,” she added, cattily.
She was now convinced that Miss Acrington had no experience of this important aspect of the role of the most senior staff in most schools.
“Quite,” said Miss Acrington. “However, it might be best if I just follow your usual practice for the time being. I have just realised, for one thing, that I don’t even know where the cane is.”
“You’ll find it on the top of that cupboard,” Miss Denham replied. “If you put your hand up over the ledge, you’ll feel it.”
“Shall I fetch it for you?”
“No, no, I’ll get it later. Would you mind, Miss Denham, telling me exactly how a caning is carried out here? Please sit down again for a moment. Please tell me what happens. It is done in the evening, you say, and the girl goes off to bed afterwards. I can see why that might be preferable.”
“Yes. She is told to report here for it, at lights-out,” Miss Denham said.
“Before she gets ready for bed?”
“No, after she is ready for bed.” Miss Denham began to feel a bit awkward.
“I see,” said Miss Acrington. “So she is just in her nightdress?”
“Yes. If she is wearing a dressing-gown, she is told to remove it.”
This did at least settle a question Miss Acrington had not wanted to ask; were girls in this school caned on their hands or their behinds? In her previous school the headmistress had done it, on the rare occasions when it was done, on their hands. She knew that much. But if a girl had to remove her dressing gown, it must be because she was to receive it on her posterior.
“I suppose one is quite decent in just a boarding-school nightie,” murmured Miss Acrington.
Miss Denham considered her best option was to plough on as though she had not heard this. “She has to lift her nightie up above her waist,” she said. “Then bend over the desk.”
Miss Acrington looked shocked.
“A normal punishment is anything from two strokes to six strokes,” Miss Denham hurried on. “And girls are expected not to make too much fuss while they are being punished. They are usually crying by the end, though.”
Miss Denham felt both embarrassment and resentment at having to describe these details out loud, in the cold light of day, to someone she still thought of as an outsider. It made the whole business sound strange and even a bit suspect, whereas the reality was that it was just part of the ritual and tradition of school life, which Miss Denham had grown accustomed to and valued. She and Celia had been in perfect agreement over the benefits of corporal punishment and they did not feel the need to be always solemn and serious about it, either.
They had sometimes shared a sly joke about the physical attributes of this or that girl being particularly well suited to it. Roberta would be a good example. Miss Denham had always thought, however, that corporal punishment was a feature of school life that was best kept from close scrutiny by unsympathetic outsiders. Perhaps that was why she had always felt most comfortable about witnessing it or administering it when it was dark outside and the heavy curtains were drawn and a fire was burning in the grate. It was cosy and private like that, almost like a separate world.
“It does seem most unfortunate that this should have to be done to a sixth-former,” ventured Miss Acrington. “Even though she is not a prefect.”
Miss Denham confined her reply to a simple: “Yes,” but she could have told her that under Miss Gilmour’s headship it was by no means unusual for sixth-formers, including the occasional prefect, to be punished in this way. On one memorable occasion it had even been a junior mistress. That caning had been carried out in the strictest secrecy, much later in the evening than usual, so that none of the rest of the staff, let alone any of the pupils, ever found out about it. After administering a standard six of the best, Celia had assured the young lady that all was forgiven and forgotten, which she had demonstrated by giving her an affectionate hug and a kiss, followed by Miss Denham doing the same. Just a tender kiss on the cheek, but to Miss Denham it was a sweet memory. In the spirit of continued secrecy, she and Celia had never referred to this episode afterwards, except very obliquely, and she would not have dreamed of mentioning it to the new headmistress.
The first thing Miss Acrington did, after the door closed behind Miss Denham, was to go over to the cupboard to retrieve the cane. When she got it down and looked at it, she remembered with renewed embarrassment how she had asked if Miss Gilmour had sprained her wrist using it. It was absurd to think of hitting a girl on her bare bottom with such an instrument so hard as to sprain one’s wrist.
Meanwhile, Miss Denham went off to find Roberta Smythe. Any satisfaction she was feeling about the fact that Miss Acrington was beginning to stumble was far outweighed by threats to her own standing with the governors, to Roberta’s future, and to the good order of the school generally.
Mrs Thorpe had told her the governors were relying on her to ‘keep the ship steady’ during the initial stages of Miss Acrington’s headship. This was a monumental cheek. If that was what they wanted, why hadn’t they appointed her to the headship? All the same, she could see herself, most unfairly, coming in for some of the criticism if things started falling apart.
As for Roberta, it would be a tragedy if she ended up being expelled. She was not a particularly bad girl but she had an unfortunate side to her nature. She was very quick to take advantage of any weakness in someone in authority. If the form was making life miserable for a new teacher, or a teacher in training, she could guarantee Roberta would be at the forefront. It brought out the worst in her. If only she, Miss Denham, had been headmistress, that silly bullying incident would have been settled by now. Roberta would have cried herself to sleep the previous night with six neatly arranged stripes across her healthy young bottom. In the morning, all would have been forgiven and she would have been ready to turn over a new leaf. She might even have sought out those girls of her own accord and said sorry. Certainly, if Miss Denham had dropped her a hint to that effect she would have done it. That wasn’t possible now, after that ridiculous charade in the study. The whole school would know what had happened and would be waiting eagerly to know how it turned out.
To Miss Denham’s disappointment, Roberta proved unreachable. She gave her a long lecture during which the girl kept her eyes downcast and gave monosyllabic answers.
Finally, Miss Denham said: “If you wish to talk to me about this, Roberta, you are welcome to come to my study for a chat. I would urge you to do so. But I am sure you realise that nothing can change the fact you must report to Miss Acrington’s study at lights-out this evening. I am going to tell you something in confidence; Miss Acrington is minded to expel you. I would wish you to be very careful to ensure that that does not happen. I, for one, would not wish to lose you from this school. And I am not talking just about your valuable contribution to the hockey team. I don’t think you realise your own potential to make a positive contribution in all sorts of ways.”
Roberta feared and respected Miss Denham. She also, she realised suddenly now, actually liked her. One part of her really wished to talk to her. But the other part did not, and that part won. Roberta had smelled blood. She had sensed Miss Acrington’s inner panic at losing control and she was elated at having been the cause of it. She just could not resist continuing to defy her and she had developed the idea she might even, possibly, be able to destroy her. Destroy her peace of mind, destroy her ability to carry on as headmistress. It was a huge, seductive temptation. So, after a bit of a struggle, her only response to Miss Denham was a muttered: “Yes, ma’am.”
* * *
At eight minutes past nine that evening, Roberta Smythe and Miss Acrington stood facing each other in the latter’s study, with Miss Denham looking on. Roberta’s face wore a belligerent expression.
Miss Acrington looked uneasy and when she said: “Raise your nightdress and bend over my desk,” there was even a slight tremor in her voice.
Roberta complied, but before she did so her eyes turned to Miss Denham, who frowned significantly back, as much as to say: ‘Remember what I told you.’
This exchange of looks was not lost on Miss Acrington, and it did nothing to restore her confidence in her own authority.
Roberta had bent over this same desk three times before, twice for Miss Gilmour and once for Miss Denham. Each time, especially the last, when she’d got six of the best, she had felt very contrite afterwards and vowed to be good. And so she had been, for a while. This time it was going to be different.
‘However hard she canes me, I won’t cry,’ she thought. She would make sure at the end that Miss Acrington knew that she, Roberta, was going to be her undoing.
Appearances can be deceptive, however, as they were to Miss Acrington now.
With her bottom bared and presented for correction, the sixth-former looked humbled. The sight increased the headmistress’s confidence in what she was about to do. Miss Denham watched her raise the cane high above her shoulder, as though determined to bring it down hard. It was not to be, however.
At the last moment, Miss Acrington’s confidence failed. She lowered the cane to just below shoulder height. Then raised it to shoulder height. Then a bit down again. With a nervous flick of her wrist, Miss Acrington finally delivered the stroke, whereupon she stood back and peered at Roberta as much as to say: ‘You won’t be feeling so smart now!’
At first there was no sign of where the cane had landed and then, after a few seconds, a very faint, pink line appeared. Miss Denham’s heart sank. Miss Acrington was slim and lightly built and she should be using a lot more of her notable energy and vigour to compensate. Miss Denham herself was not much larger than Miss Acrington, but she had taught gym and games in addition to her main subject, history, before she became deputy head, and she still coached the school hockey teams, so what she lacked in brute force she made up for in technique. And Celia had plenty of striking power available to her, being a stoutly built woman. Stepping discreetly to one side enabled Miss Denham to see Roberta’s puzzled face.
The second stroke was no harder than the first and, although it made better contact, Miss Denham still didn’t think it had made much impression. Miss Acrington obviously did, however. She folded her arms and asked out loud: “Well? Are you sorry now, young lady?”
She stepped back so that she, too, could see Roberta’s face, but when she made eye contact Roberta just smirked back at her. This girl was taunting her! Immediately overcome with frustration and rage, Miss Acrington raised the cane high above her shoulder and brought it down with as much force as she could. The stroke was rushed and the delivery was clumsy. Only the nearer part of the shaft, the part immediately beyond where it was gripped tightly (too tightly) in Miss Acrington’s right hand, landed on Roberta’s posterior, while the other end met nothing but air before hitting the edge of the desk. Even so, thanks to the passion behind it, this stroke created quite a respectable stripe, which crossed diagonally the paths of its fainter predecessors.
It was now that Roberta made her big mistake. “Bitch!” She whispered.
It was meant for Miss Acrington’s ears only, but Miss Denham was close enough to hear it too. She was shocked. She couldn’t remember any girl saying anything like that even to one of the junior mistresses, let alone to her headmistress.
Miss Acrington stood, stunned, for a few seconds. Then she took three steps backwards. Three careful, considered steps. A strange, calm expression descended on her features, as though some conflict within her had been resolved. She raised the cane high in the air, ran forward and lashed it down across the proffered target. There was a loud noise on impact this time and a red stripe formed immediately, on the right cheek only, curving round towards the hip. Running in high heels is awkward and it had interfered with her aim. That could be rectified.
She kicked her shoes off before walking back to her previous position. She grimly surveyed her handiwork for a few moments. Then she retreated a couple of steps further back still, before starting another run. The aim was better this time but the power of the stroke was diminished by the fact that she had stumbled due to the tightness of her skirt. Not greatly diminished though, and this problem too could be rectified.
As she walked back to take up her stance once more, she hitched up her skirt a few inches to allow her legs to move more freely. While still lacking in finesse, this stroke was much the most effective so far. Roberta caught her breath and went very still. But that was all. Miss Denham could detect no sign of sobbing, no tell-tale shaking of her shoulders.
Over the next few seconds, the two watching women were able to observe the formation of a long, livid welt, running from high up on the right cheek of Roberta’s bottom to low down on the left.
‘We need another one like that,’ thought Miss Denham grimly. ‘You can’t let up on her now.’
There was no danger of that. This was still a battle of wills but it had become a more equal battle. Roberta realised she had gone too far, much too far, in coming out with that word. She sensed the change it had brought about in Miss Acrington. She had calculated it would send the headmistress into an even greater and more impotent frenzy, but it had had the opposite effect. Still, she wasn’t going to give up now. There was only one more stroke to endure. She gritted her teeth, clenched her hands tightly into fists and braced herself for it.
She had warning of its arrival, from the flurry of running feet across the carpet, but when it did arrive she almost couldn’t cope. Making a great effort, she remained still and managed to blink fast enough to keep the tears at bay. Then she slowly rose upright, looking as dignified as she could manage, even making herself keep her hands away from where she longed to clasp them.
Miss Denham’s heart sank. Still no tears. The set of Roberta’s back suggested she felt she had been victorious. Miss Acrington turned out to have other ideas.
“I didn’t tell you you could get up,” she said. “Bend back over.”
“But I’ve had six!” Protested Roberta. There was a tremor in her voice now, Miss Denham was glad to hear.
“I never said anything about six or any other number,” said Miss Acrington evenly. “Pull your nightdress up again and bend back over.”
Roberta remained stubbornly standing. The seconds ticked by on the grandfather clock in the corner. Miss Denham wondered if she should intervene. Whatever she had felt before, she was now completely on Miss Acrington’s side. She had been magnificent since Roberta had uttered her horrible epithet.
The headmistress waited now, quite serenely, seemingly perfectly confident of being obeyed. In actual fact, it was more that she was past caring, but no matter, the effect was the same. After a few more seconds, Roberta’s hands went to her nightie and pulled it back up. Then she bent over and put her elbows once again on the headmistress’s desk. She had capitulated and Miss Denham felt elated.
Miss Acrington hitched her skirt even higher. Stocking tops and suspenders came into view. Then she rose up on tiptoe before pitching herself once again at the errant sixth-former. This stroke did not land entirely on Roberta’s bottom. On the left side, it caught the top of her leg instead. There was no doubting its force though. There was a gasp from Roberta, then nothing for a few seconds. Then Miss Denham saw a small shaking of the shoulders, then a low sobbing sound.
Adjusting her stance slightly, she found herself inadvertently looking up Roberta’s nightie, where she glimpsed the sixth-former’s pendant breasts wobbling in unison with the shaking of her shoulders. It turned into rather more than a glimpse, since Miss Denham couldn’t help watching for longer than she should have.
Would Miss Acrington give her another stroke? Yes. She was merciless, it seemed. Miss Denham watched in admiration as she ran across the carpet in a flurry of stockinged feet, scissoring thighs and flying hair. Perhaps over-compensating for the low placement of the previous stroke, she landed this one too high up, but she got the timing right and the stroke fully connected. Roberta let out a heartfelt cry and collapsed forward onto the desk.
“Please!” She whispered.
“Get up,” Miss Acrington told her.
This time Roberta’s nightdress did not fall back down because her hands were gripped to her bottom as she rose slowly upright. She was crying properly now.
“Turn round and face me,” said Miss Acrington, and when the girl had done so, said: “Tomorrow at assembly, before the whole school, you will apologise to those girls again. You can say it however you like but apologise you will. Now go.”
Roberta departed, still crying.
Miss Denham could hardly believe it. She had just been silently congratulating Miss Acrington on having prevailed after all, and now she had risked undoing all that she had achieved. Roberta might be in no mood to refuse just now, but after a night’s sleep and confronted with the sight of the rest of the school at assembly, it might be a different story. Surely Miss Acrington must see that?
“I know what you are thinking,” said Miss Acrington. “But I had to do that. I ordered Roberta to apologise to those girls. You’ve convinced me I was wrong to do so, but I did do it and now I have to see it through. Or try to. I realise she might refuse, especially when she’s had time to recover and the opportunity to speak to her friends. If she does, I will admit defeat.”
“You mustn’t do that!” Cried Miss Denham.
“I don’t mean literally,” said Miss Acrington. “But if a rebellious sixth-former can get the better of me then I have no business being head of this school and I shall resign. I shall do it privately and discreetly, with no drama, don’t worry. I know I have been vain and foolish, but I am going to stop being so. If I do have to resign, they will make you Acting Head and I hope they make you Head after that as well. You will be very good.”
Miss Denham had never credited Miss Acrington with such generosity of spirit. She had already been won her over by Miss Acrington’s antics of a few moments before. Now she was quite overcome with emotion. On a sudden impulse, she sank to her knees, picked up one of Miss Acrington’s high-heeled shoes and guided the shapely, stockinged foot into it. Then she did the same with the other one. Miss Acrington put her hand on Miss Denham’s shoulder for support.
“Thank you, Lois,” she said.
“It’s a pleasure, Miranda,” Lois replied.
* * *
In the event, Roberta did apologise at assembly next morning, although if she had known that now she really did hold the fate of her headmistress in her hands, who knows how she might have acted? It was not an abject apology, but on the other hand it was delivered without sarcasm. It passed muster.
“I think I can count it,” said Miranda to Lois afterwards.
“You most certainly can,” replied Lois. “To celebrate, would you like to come to my room for coffee?”
Sitting comfortably together in Lois’s study, sipping their coffee, the two women discussed various school matters, including one that was still uppermost in Miranda’s mind.
“I need you to teach me how to give the cane properly,” she said. “I can’t go on rushing around the room flailing wildly.”
“I thought you were magnificent,” said Lois. “The running certainly saved the day. You could develop it as your signature technique!”
“Well, for use in extremis perhaps, yes,” Miranda smiled wryly. “But it wouldn’t do as the routine. Perhaps this afternoon we could meet in my study and you could demonstrate, using a cushion, and then I could practise as well.”
Their afternoon session went well but there was a surprise for Lois at the end.
“I feel I need to experience it myself if I am going to be doing it to the girls,” Miranda told her. “Besides,” she added. “I deserve it. I have behaved very foolishly and I’ve been beastly to you.”
The surprised Lois protested for form’s sake, despite being privately very taken with the idea. She suggested eventually that they might go elsewhere to do it or at the very least lock the study door to guarantee they would not be disturbed.
“Oh but we couldn’t do it now,” said Miranda. “I couldn’t be seen walking along the corridor in my nightie and knocking on my own study door in the middle of the afternoon!”
Having satisfied herself that Miranda was perfectly serious about taking things that far (“I have never been more serious in my life,” Miranda assured her), Lois suggested in that case they should proceed exactly as though Miranda was an errant schoolgirl and Lois was the headmistress.
“Yes, let’s do it like that,” said Miranda enthusiastically.
So, as she rose to leave, Lois said: “Miranda, you are to report to this study at lights-out this evening. And I think you know what that means.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Miranda meekly.
It all went remarkably well. Afterwards, prompted by the memory of what had happened that time with the junior mistress, Lois gave Miranda a hug and a kiss. Unfortunately, Miranda moved her head at the wrong moment and received a tender kiss on the lips instead of the cheek. Lois was embarrassed but luckily Miranda didn’t seem to mind.
Next day, over morning coffee (coffee together seemed set to be a habit with them), Lois announced the firm intention she had formed overnight. Miranda had now experienced being on the receiving end of the cane but it was much more important that she should gain more experience in administering it herself.
“You must practise on me,” Lois told her.
Lois would report to her that evening for it. Lois suggested that while she was being beaten it would be helpful if she commented on aspects of Miranda’s technique. Miranda was horrified.
“I couldn’t possibly do that!” She exclaimed. “It just wouldn’t feel right. I mean I know it was pretending, in a way, but I really had been obnoxious and I deserved it. Whereas, you have always behaved impeccably, even when I was rude to you.”
Lois felt guilty, remembering the malice in some of her innocent-seeming responses. That was a difficult thing to explain, however, and anyway Miranda might be embarrassed. Lois didn’t want that. Then she had an idea.
“It might help if I told you something,” she said. And she confessed about her secret meetings with Mrs Thorpe and the verdicts she was giving on Miranda’s performance as headmistress. It did help.
I will give no further details. These are two adult women who are entitled to their privacy. Suffice it to say that this was the beginning of a warm and lasting relationship between them, which continued after Lois was appointed head of another school not far away.
And Roberta? She is married now. She had her choice of eligible bachelors and she chose well; a handsome, athletic man who was a bit older than her and already established in his career. He has high expectations of his wife and puts up with no nonsense. The rest of her final year at boarding school was a happy one. She and Miss Acrington had as little to do with each other as possible but she had a friend in Miss Denham, who made her captain of the hockey team, the first ever captain of hockey who was not also a prefect.
© Hilary Wilmington 2016