A sequel to ‘Lines’, a school secretary is in trouble again
By Hilary Wilmington
“You may go back to your office now, Mrs Burford, and compose yourself.” Mr Clements was referring to the fact that she was crying. “I shall not need you for the rest of the morning but I shall need you for dictation immediately after the lunch break.”
Having gained her office through the door which connected with the headmaster’s, Lucy made straight for the other door, which led onto the corridor. She listened carefully to make sure no-one was approaching before she grabbed her handbag and went across to the Ladies, which was directly opposite. Once inside, she pushed home the bolt, opened her handbag, and prepared to ‘compose herself’, at her leisure.
Although this was one of the official staff lavatories, in practice it was more or less Lucy’s. It was small and it was too far away from the staffroom to be of convenience to the teachers. She started a tap running, took out a piece of cotton wool from her handbag and dabbed very carefully at her eyes, first one then the other. Then she critically examined them in the mirror above the sink. The redness would soon go. Then she looked at her hands. On these, it would last longer. There was a single, dark red line across each palm.
The sting had not seemed so bad as last time, probably because she’d known what to expect and had braced herself for it. She could, if she had tried, have kept back her tears, but crying seemed appropriate to the occasion and a mark of respect to Mr Clements; he would want to be assured that she was distressed by her punishment. She had put a special jar of hand-cream into her bag that morning before leaving for work and she took it out now and gently rubbed it into her hands. Then she leaned in towards the mirror and began the process of restoring her make-up. It was a task she could perform automatically while becoming pleasantly absorbed in her own thoughts. So absorbed did she become, that she was startled by the bell announcing the lunch break.
She spent a pleasant lunch break reading the latest issue of her magazine, which she hadn’t had a chance to look at yet because the previous evening had been taken up with the writing of her lines ‘I must not be late for work’ a hundred times. She had not resented it. She had not even resented the second and more painful part of her punishment which had taken place just now. Those were his rules, after all, and they seemed quite fair and reasonable to Lucy. She was only punished if she was late twice in the same week.
The first time it happened, she had to write a hundred lines, but if it happened again, in the same term, it was two strokes of the cane as well, one on each hand. These were the same punishments he applied to the pupils and Mr Clements was so far above Lucy in his knowledge and authority that she must seem to him almost like another of the schoolgirls. What she did not know is what the punishment would be if she was late twice in the same week yet again this term. Since she had started at the school, no schoolgirls had ever been in this position, so all her listening at the door while they were being punished had not settled this particular question. There were still five weeks to go until the end of term. It was very possible that she would again be late twice in one of those weeks. Would he give her more strokes? Well, if he did, he did. She had heard several girls getting four strokes and one had even got six. There was no point in worrying about it. She was in the hands of the bus service.
Lucy always enjoyed taking dictation from Mr Clements, and now that her punishment was over she had no reason not to look forward to it this afternoon. In Hollywood films, there was sometimes a scene in which a smart, attractive secretary took dictation from her boss, and Lucy wished she could be like one of these, a paragon of attractive efficiency. A few nights before, she had a dream that she was taking dictation from Mr Clements in a scene just like this, except that she was dressed in just her petticoat. He made no remark about this and all was going smoothly until Lucy realised that she was gradually losing her ability to write. She knew the shorthand symbols she wanted to put down but she couldn’t make her fingers do the necessary actions. Mr Clements became cross. He stood over her and reprimanded her. Then things started to get very strange indeed. All the furniture in the room disappeared and she was lying at full stretch on the floor with her arms extended beyond her head. She began to roll over and over on the carpet, all the way around the perimeter of the room, with Mr Clements towering over her. He said: “I require absolute perfection from you, Lucy. Nothing less will do. Your petticoat is riding up your legs and I find it most distracting.” Then suddenly he had a whip in his hand and he was whipping her as she went on rolling and writhing around the room. It was a ridiculous dream, Lucy thought, and quite embarrassing too.
True to his word, Mr Clements called her through as soon as the lunch break was over. Their usual time for dictation was between eleven and eleven-thirty in the morning, when it was well-known in the school that he should not be disturbed on any account, but that time had been occupied by something else, of course, on this particular morning. Lucy seated herself in the chair opposite his desk, crossed her legs, tugged at her skirt, placed her writing pad upon her knee and sat upright and poised.
“We will begin with a letter to Mr Rawlings at the Local Education Authority,” he said.
“Yes headmaster.” She liked saying ‘Yes headmaster’ and she pronounced the words in a way that expressed, she hoped, both his authority over her and her respect for it.
He dictated quite fast and she had some difficulty keeping up with him, so it was a relief to her to find that the letter was a brief one.
“Would you read that back to me, Mrs Burford?”
When she read it back he made one correction. “I think ‘as soon as you could spare the time’ would be better than ‘as soon as possible’,” he said. “In fact, I think those were the words I used.”
“Yes headmaster.” She was sure they weren’t, but she would not dream of contradicting him.
“Have you been doing your daily shorthand practice?” He asked.
Her shorthand had been very rusty at the beginning and Mr Clements had been patient but firm in telling her she needed to improve her speed and accuracy. He’d insisted that she spend half an hour each day practising and the arrangement was that she should do it between two and two-thirty each afternoon, and she was to give it priority over everything else. This was not always practicable, she found, but she thought she managed it at least twice a week.
“I was thinking that this session now could count as today’s practice,” she said.
“Yes indeed,” he replied.
“Is the standard of my shorthand still less than you require, headmaster?” She asked.
“There is always room for improvement, of course,” he said. “But I can assure you it has come on in leaps and bounds since you started here. At this rate, you will be a rival for any secretary in the land!”
“Oh! Thank you, headmaster!”
Taken by surprise, Lucy blushed with pleasure and she vowed that she really would practise every day from now on. The headmaster’s praise made that dream she had seem even more ridiculous. She felt quite indignant towards herself for having dreamed it, even though she told herself she couldn’t be blamed because no-one had control over their dreams.
Spurred on by Mr Clements’ praise, Lucy kept her promise to herself and practised her shorthand conscientiously for half-an-hour a day for the rest of the term. As a result, she earned one or two reprimands from Mr Clements about work that did not get done on time. She did not lose any sleep over them. After her ten years as a housewife, during which she had listened to many grisly stories from her husband about his work, she’d had an exaggerated idea of the difficulties of this sort that she would encounter in employment, and in the event she had been pleasantly surprised. Anyway, the unpleasantness never lasted more than five minutes before all was forgiven and forgotten. That was what she liked about working for Mr Clements. She did not even attempt to defend herself, although if he had gone so far as to punish her in some way she might have protested. But he never did punish her for things like that, only for lateness, and on that score Lucy’s luck held for the remaining five weeks of term, in that although the bus was late a number of times. None of the three or four times it was over five minutes late occurred in the same week.
In the final week of term, she was late on the Monday. On the Tuesday, the bus pulled into the stop at forty minutes past eight, but by walking briskly she still managed to arrive to work by her official starting time of eight forty-five. The next day, Wednesday, it arrived at the stop at eight thirty-five, bang on time; however, on starting her walk to the school, she remembered that she had mislaid her fountain pen and she was sure she had left it in the Post Office. It was her best fountain pen and she was very attached to it. It had not been particularly expensive but it was a good one and it suited her well. It was the one she used for, among other things, writing lines. She could leave it until lunch-time to go and enquire about it but the next issue of her magazine had come out and she was looking forward to reading it during her lunch break. She looked at her watch. She should just make it, she thought. The Post Office was on her way. She knocked on the glass door to attract their attention. The Post Office didn’t open until nine o’clock but the staff were already in there. Someone recognised her and opened the door. As she had thought, they did have her pen but it took them several minutes to find it, with the result that she didn’t reach her office until eight forty-nine. She knew there would be consequences.
When she went in to Mr Clements, he said: “That was the second time you were late this week, Mrs Burford. And I have to add that it is no less than the third time this term that this has happened. It will therefore be two hundred lines this time.”
“Am I to write the same sentence, headmaster?” Lucy asked.
She was, truth to tell, getting a bit bored with ‘I must not be late for work’. She didn’t want to give him any hint of this because it was, after all, a punishment and it wasn’t supposed to be interesting, and this time in fact it was supposed to be worse. Nevertheless, she still hoped he might set her something knew. He did.
After a few moments’ thought, he said: “Write this: ‘If I am persistently late I will be caned.’ And when you bring them to me tomorrow, I will confirm the truth of what you have written.”
That evening, once her husband had departed for the pub and the children were in bed, Lucy went upstairs herself to write her lines. There was a small table in a corner of the bedroom on which she placed her writing pad and the fountain pen she had retrieved from the Post Office. She sat down at the table and began her task. She wrote the word ‘persistently’ a few times, making it flow from her pen and enjoying the succession of descenders and ascenders in the letters of the word.
Then she practiced the entire sentence. She decided to put a comma after ‘late’. She practised commas by themselves until she was satisfied with the result. Then she practised the whole sentence: ‘If I am persistently late, I will be caned.’ It occurred to her that if she moved ‘persistently’ after ‘late’, she could use two commas. She liked writing commas. She wrote: ‘If I am late, persistently, I will be caned.’ Yes, that looked nice. But would he object that this was not his exact wording and make her do them all over again? Well, if he did, he did.
She took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote the sentence on the first line. Then on the next. And on the next, and so on, to the bottom of the page, taking great care, as always, to ensure all the lines were uniform in their spacing and alignment, and inexpressibly neat. Then on to the next page. She had double the number to do this time, so it was over two hours before she had completed them. She became so absorbed in her writing, however, that she was quite unaware of the time passing. When she was finished, with only two lines on the last sheet (she never went over the prescribed number), she hid them carefully away, switched off the electric fire that had been keeping her warm and prepared for bed. As she snuggled beneath the bedclothes, she thought of the pleasure it would give her to hand over those ten sheets of perfect writing to Mr Clements in the morning. She fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, not even waking when her husband returned from the pub.
Next morning, Mr Clements subjected her lines to a close, frowning examination, page by page. Lucy became sure he was going to object to her changing the order of the words but he said: “These are beautifully done, Mrs Burford.” He placed them, as usual, in the left-hand drawer of his desk. Lucy wondered if all her previous lines were in there as well. Once, when she’d been alone in his office, she had tried the drawer but found it locked. “However,” he continued, “Since you have been late, persistently, that’s not the end of the matter.”
As dozens of naughty schoolgirls must have done, Lucy watched with a fast-beating heart as he walked over to the wall-cupboard and retrieved the object hanging from its hook inside. She knew from her own experience, as well as from all her listening at the connecting door, that the best thing was just to accept it and get it over with, without making a fuss, so by the time he reached her she was already holding out her right hand. She watched the short, flimsy cane, wielded with apparently little effort, collide with her palm. As soon as this happened, without thinking, she started silently counting to herself from ‘one’ and by the time she reached ‘three’ the acuteness of the sting had gone. She was pleased by how helpful she found this little strategy.
She kept her right hand held out for another one, sure that since she’d had double the lines to write she would receive twice the number of strokes. She was confident of being able to bear it without difficulty. However, he inflicted the second stroke across her fingers, low down, just above the palm, and whether it was the surprise of it or for some other reason, it seemed to hurt much more.
“Oh!” She gasped, then: “Oh headmaster!” She whispered. She had to blink back her tears.
He was thrillingly impervious to her distress. “If you continue to break my rules about punctuality, you must suffer the consequences,” he told her. “Now hold out your other hand.”
She held it out. It crossed her mind that it was entirely her own fault that she was receiving this punishment. The bus service was blameless. If she had not decided to call in at the Post Office for her mislaid pen the day before, she would not have been late for work. This hand got exactly the same treatment as the other but, when the second stroke landed, the addition of a sharp clicking sound told Lucy that the cane had hit her wedding ring. It didn’t seem to make any difference to the sting. While Mr Clements walked back over to the cupboard to replace the cane, Lucy let her tears flow freely.
In the sanctuary of the Ladies, she had four red lines to examine. Removing her ring confirmed that her ring finger had been left unmarked. She wondered if he’d make her remove it beforehand, next time. If there was a next time.
© Hilary Wilmington 2018