Questions of Principle

Poor choices gets different generations into difficulty, but with similar results

By Jane Fairweather

Miss Thomson ran her hand rather sensuously over her very elegant nylon underskirt, which was itself covering the lower half of a rather lovely scarlet petticoat. The petticoat hid a very ordinary white vest, an extremely elegant black bra and fawn coloured directoire knickers, not to mention a small corset that doubled as a suspender belt and kept the worst of her stomach from view.

She had long ago decided that it was good in the evening to remove the stern grey skirt suit that served as her headmistress’s uniform in the day, and put on something altogether more informal. It served to teach the girls that one day they would be free to change into more elegant clothes in the evening when they had finished their day as a teacher or civil servant or secretary, and she liked her girls to know what dressing well looked like.

Not that she had any intention whatever of permitting even Sixth Formers to wear anything other than their very clearly defined uniform, which extended even to underwear.

She sardonically remembered her conversation with some liberal minded prospective parents who had queried the need for even the Sixth Form to wear moderately thick blue knickers that went up to the waist and down to the top of the thighs and had gone so far as to say that modern panties would be much more sensible in this day and age.

“You surely would not wish to deny your daughter some protection when she has the cane?” she had observed rather archly.

“The cane!” the horrified parents has exclaimed in unison; they had obviously not read the school rules and realized that corporal punishment was still in use at the Dunstan School for girls.

“I don’t do it that often, but I do like to have it available as a punishment in certain circumstances.” Miss Thomson had rather ambiguously replied, missing out the fact that while a caning from the headmistress was comparatively rare she let her house mistresses apply up to four whacks with the slipper at their discretion, and some of them at least were quite keen on doing it;  Miss Pocock especially.

The prospective pupil, who looked quite lively, stated very firmly that she really did not mind and it was probably quicker than all the lines she had got at her previous school, but her parents had taken her off in a huff, deeply annoyed by this affront to their values.

Miss Thomson opened her wardrobe door and spent the next quarter of an hour in a detailed consideration of various dresses and combinations of blouse and skirt before in the end returning to the same very elegant black dress she had started with. It clung just tightly enough not to be uncomfortable, or make her look fat; and it looked formal enough for this debate that she had been asked to participate in.

That she was being asked to participate was a trifle odd.

Miss Pocock, who organised the Sixth Form Debating Society, had come to her saying, “We are having a debate on Nuclear Disarmament, Miss Thomson, and the idea of this country having nuclear weapons just does not appeal to the girls. I don’t suppose you would like to give the case for it, well, assuming you are for it, but I imagine you are. If you were prepared to do it then it would make it for a much more interesting debate.”

Miss Thomson had graciously said yes, thinking it was a good opportunity to see some of her liveliest girls at close quarters, Audrey Mills especially, who she had a definite crush on. However, she had kept half puzzling and half worrying to herself that not even one girl could be found to state the strong and obvious case for Britain possessing nuclear weapons. Not for the first time, she wondered at the tendency that seemed to be creeping in among her pupils, and no doubt elsewhere, to assume that the establishment case was always wrong. It was just like the Thirties when the Peace Pledge Union and Oswald Mosely’s Fascists had both proclaimed in their very different ways that there was nothing much wrong with Hitlerite Germany and war was an evil that must be avoided at all costs. She had flirted with both in her time and come to distrust both.

But at that moment Miss Bates, her house keeper, knocked and said Miss Pocock was waiting for her downstairs, so Miss Thomson picked up her coat and wandered down.

Miss Pocock’s plump bottom always amused her. It was of a sort that would undoubtedly suffer a great deal from the effects of a well applied cane or slipper, which made Miss Thomson think in turn that Miss Pocock had never undergone corporal punishment. If her housemistress had undergone that indignity, Miss Thomson reflected, she would probably be less keen on slippering her pupils, which she was rather too keen on chattering on about.

This was perhaps an unfortunate thought, for Miss Pocock started on that tack as soon as they were on out of the door of the Headmistress’s house.

“You would not believe it, Miss Thomas. I had to slipper my cousin, you know, Anna Rollinson for mucking about in class and then being caught smoking. It’s such a small bottom for four with the gym shoe, but she had three only ten days ago for misbehaviour in Miss Smithson’s Latin Class, so I thought she had to have four. I suppose if it happens again I shall have to send her to you. At any rate that was what I told her, and I don’t think she liked the idea, so maybe she will pull up her socks.”

“Yes, let us hope so. It must be unpleasant to have to punish your cousin, who I expect you are fond of. I will hope not to see Miss Rollinson outside my door, though I expect sooner or later she will cross the red line, having got this far.”  Miss Thomson said, wondering to herself if she had the heart to get out one of her canes and apply the three or four strokes she normally applied in such circumstances, if the girl really did have such a small behind. Possibly a sharp warning and the promise of the cane next time might work.

*          *          *

The Sixth Form Common Room was quite full for the debate. Miss Thomson suspected the fact that the Headmistress was speaking accounted for a fair part of the audience; but Audrey Mills, who was proposing the motion, ‘That this house believes that the United Kingdom should destroy any weapons it has and not build any more’ was undoubtedly very popular.

Miss Thomson cast her eye over Miss Mills and noted that she was undoubtedly wearing a half slip as well as a full length one under her white blouse and pleated brown skirt. This was strictly against the uniform code, which only allowed one full length slip, and Miss Thomson decided she would say something about it in assembly without naming names. But still, Audrey Mills’ auburn shoulder length hair was looking very well groomed and she looked bright and fresh; and Miss Thomson could not help thinking how beautiful she looked.

It crossed Miss Thomson’s mind to wonder if Audrey had ever had the slipper. She had been in Miss Pocock’s house and Miss P was undoubtedly free, perhaps too free, with that implement. On the other hand, Audrey had always been a very good girl, in Miss Thomson’s experience, so she probably had not had the interesting experience of bending over and presenting the seat of her tightly stretched knickers for a sound whacking. And now she was too old for such indignities, Miss Thomson thought to herself, catching a glimpse of her pupil’s very well shaped bottom through Audrey’s skirts, when Audrey rose to put the motion. It would have been an interesting bottom to cane, she thought, and then giggled to herself at the thought of someone as totally good natured and well behaved as Audrey undergoing the ultimate punishment.

And typical of Audrey, her argument was very well put. The Soviet Union only had such weapons because the United States and Great Britain had them. Everyone was scared of these weapons because they were so powerful, everyone would be glad of an excuse to do away with them. If the United Kingdom set the example the other powers would be glad to follow. In any case, if we did not have these weapons the Soviet Union would not be frightened of our using them against them and would not use them against us. And then there was the moral issue.

‘Ah, the moral issue’ thought Miss Thomson, remembering the Peace Pledge Union of her youth and its belief that War is evil in any circumstances, which had led in her view to an unfortunate tendency to tolerate aggression and evil in the name of maintaining peace way back in the Thirties, an era which she sometimes wondered to herself if she was the only person who really remembered it as it was. Nevertheless, Audrey made a decent enough job of setting out the Christian view that War is wrong in all instances and swords need beating into ploughshares.

Miss Thomson realized she was being called upon to speak and rose almost uncertainly, for it was not a situation that she was used to, so she paused for a second before saying, “I do not like Nuclear Weapons any more than Audrey, but unfortunately they cannot be un-invented. Moreover, I was alive in 1940. If anyone is interested, I was pushing odd models of planes across a large board at a fighter control centre during the Battle of Britain. I just do not believe that if Hitler had possessed atomic or nuclear weapons and we had not done, he would have had the decency not to use them when he lost that famous battle in the skies. I do not say that the present government of the Soviet Union is as bad as Hitler, though their immediate predecessors were, but I do not trust them not to use such weapons against us. We were the country that saved Europe from Louis the Fourteenth, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler and it was our Island position that made it possible. Nuclear weapons in the hands of an enemy when we do not possess them would take away the value of our being an island and in a 1940 situation we would have to surrender.”

She went on a little longer, feeling quite uncertain how to end, before summing up briefly and sitting down. It worried her that the applause was so small. Surely her speech had been better than that?

Then Elizabeth Godfrey, who had been Audrey’s best friend all the way up the school, was standing up to second the motion. She was a fiery red head whose pigtails and large breasts tended to move about as she spoke, but Miss Thomson suspected that she was the only person there that found this funny; the girls were listening intently. More disturbingly, Elizabeth was speaking, to Miss Thomson’s mind, in a very cowardly way, saying that anyone in their right mind would wish to stay alive, and if these weapons were used everyone would be dead. If free speech was not so important to Democracy, Miss Thomson thought to herself, she would have taken a large cane to Elizabeth’s backside for talking so foolishly.

After that, Miss Pocock seconded Miss Thomson very briefly, and badly, with a few very poorly absorbed arguments from the Headmistress’s own speech.

There were some not very good contributions from the floor, only one of which was in favour of retaining nuclear weapons. Then, after a brief summing up by the principle speakers, the vote was taken. Miss Thomson was quite shaken, for only seven girls out of nearly fifty had supported her. Still, she complimented Audrey on her speech with genuine enthusiasm and gritted her teeth and also complimented Elizabeth on hers, though she had hated every word of it.

But it was Audrey that really worried her. She turned to her headmistress after the compliments had been given and said, “I am really glad you felt able to give the other side’s arguments, Miss, and you did it really well, but I am sure you did not believe them, did you?”

“I am afraid I meant every word of it, Audrey,” she said.

Audrey blushed and had the grace to say, “I am sorry if I got you wrong, Miss,” but it worried her headmistress deeply that the girl had said it in the first place.

*          *          *

 It was several weeks after the debate, but the arguments were still going on round the school. Miss Thomson had been surprised at the number of girls she had seen talking about it, and she had to ban the flood of CND badges that had appeared on the lapels of girls’ blazers and, in some cases, on their ties. It was one advantage of corporal punishment, she reflected, that the announcement that wearers of such badges could expect to be interviewed by the headmistress had led to their immediate disappearance, though she felt that was a little harsh herself. She softened the pill for herself at least by saying in Assembly that the badges were banned not because of the opinions they represented, but because school rules banned any jewellery or badges.

Still, surely, this nuclear disarmament goings-on was a fashion like a lot of things in girls’ schools, and in a while it would be forgotten.

*          *          *

It was six o’clock on Saturday and Miss Bates, who was an excellent cook, had made a superb macaroni cheese which Miss Thomson had just embarked on, when the house keeper came bustling in.

“Excellent as always, Bates!” Miss Thomson said through her mouthful, wondering what the matter was. Quite possibly her cook was fishing for compliments, she often did.

“Miss, you really must come and see this on the tele news; it is really important.”

Miss Thomson, left to herself, would not have had a television, but her house keeper enjoyed it and had a set, which Miss Thomson had indulgently bought for her some years before.

“Oh very well!” Miss Thomson said most reluctantly, but she knew Bates was less likely to drag her out for nothing than most of her mistresses.

She rose uncertainly and followed into the Housekeeper’s small sitting room, which was just off the kitchen.

“Look! It’s our girls!” said Bates.

Unmistakably, Audrey, Elizabeth, with some other girls behind them, were standing just to the right of an unwashed and scruffy young man who was being interviewed about his views on nuclear disarmament. Shockingly, the girls were all in slacks. But at least there was no banner or anything else to identify what school they were from and, much though Miss Thomson hated slacks, at least the miscreants were not in school uniform. In spite of herself the headmistress laughed. The girls were all supposed to be at Stratford, seeing the new and much acclaimed production of the Merchant of Venice and several other plays. Presumably they had slipped away from Miss Pocock and Miss Danvers, who were now too alarmed for their own jobs to admit they had suffered mass truancy from their party.

Annoyingly, just as Miss Thomson reached for a sheet of paper to write down some names, the interview with the unwashed boy ended and the news moved to an item from Washington where the newly inaugurated President Kennedy seemed to be saying something slightly different about Cuba than his predecessor. It suddenly struck her how uncertain she was about which girls had been at the demonstration.

“Bates, did you notice who was there?” she asked. “I saw Audrey Mills, Elizabeth Godfrey and possibly Susan Kavanagh, though she was not very clear, but I am not at all sure about the rest. Your Television is so indistinct and they were standing in front of one another.”

“You could get me a new set, Miss, the new ones are much clearer; and that one is getting just a bit old.” Bates said dryly. “But they will probably be on again at nine o’clock.”

“I will bear a new set in mind for you, Bates; no doubt I should have done it before. Remind me. But did you see anyone other than those I have mentioned?”

“Susan is the beefy girl who is so good at Hockey, isn’t she? If it was not her, there was a girl who was as beefy as she is, but really I am not sure, Miss. Some of them could be from somewhere else. But I definitely saw that Audrey who you said a while back would be next head girl. She was right at the front.”

“I had better look again at nine.” Miss Thomson said resignedly and returned to her macaroni cheese, which was rather less hot than it had been.

She was not, she decided, looking forward to dealing with this matter. It would be painful to have to cane Audrey Mills before expelling her as the ring leader, but it was the normal practice of the school. She had so wanted Audrey to go to Oxford and do PPE! And she wished she could have been clearer about the other girls who were involved. It would be hard on those who were punished if some of their friends got off scot-free because they could not be identified. And though she would have another look at nine, the news might well not repeat the whole clip and, anyway, she doubted if it would be any clearer who had been there.

Possibly Miss Pocock would be able to tell her exactly who was involved, but she had a horrible feeling that, faced with the loss of her job anyway, Miss Pocock, who had undoubted sympathies with Nuclear Disarmament, might turn heroic and refuse to say anything; and really whether she should continue to employ someone who had allowed a catastrophe on this scale to occur was a very good question. But then perhaps Miss Pocock had allowed it to happen as a matter of principle, and Miss Thomson had a real respect for people who stood up for their principles.

There was, of course, Miss Black’s drastic and unorthodox solution from 1936. But really, could she possibly use such a solution in the very different climate of a quarter of a century later? But in many ways she did not want to lose Miss Pocock, who was a very good housemistress, if a little too keen on using corporal punishment rather than threatening it. Miss Thomson was firmly of the opinion that the threat was often far more effective than using it, though when she did use it herself she was less than merciful.

Anyway, whatever she did, it would be Monday morning before she could question anyone or do anything. The theatre trip coach was not scheduled to get back till ten on Sunday, so there was little point in doing anything till Monday. It was, she decided, going to be a tedious thirty-six hours.

*          *          *

Sunday morning was tedious. As usual on Sunday, she led those girls who wanted, which was about three quarters of the school, to the local Anglican church. She was by no means sure about Christianity herself, with the result she always let any girl who had a good reason for not going to the service to stay in School, though she always insisted that they came to her and explained their reasons to her face before they were allowed to stay away, which hopefully deterred the merely mendacious and slack. Anyway, she sat through the usual thoroughly boring sermon, which as usual had no relation to anything that was actually happening in the real world and she tried quite hard not to think about the very real issues that faced her on Monday morning.

Bates, as always, cooked an excellent Sunday dinner, which she shared on this occasion with the captains of the Junior and Senior Tennis teams. Tennis was not Miss Thomson’s favourite game, but the girls did most of the talking for her; they had very strong and conflicting views about the forthcoming Wimbledon and she just let them argue. To her relief, nuclear weapons and their abolition or retention did not enter into the conversation.

It was only after the girls had gone and Miss Thomson had taken herself off for her Sunday afternoon walk that it suddenly hit her. One minute she was in the middle of Whitman’s Wood with the buds all coming and the birds singing, the next she was very painfully reliving that awful day in 1936.

*          *          *

“You’d better act as if you’re walking over broken glass!” Miss Oakley, the Headmistress’s kindly secretary, was saying to Miss Thomson’s twenty-three year old self, “Miss Black is in one of her furies, which I don’t think you have seen before. Presumably you have done something you shouldn’t, but I would not even count on that. When she is in this mood anything can spark her off. Just let it roll over you. You will get a lot of very unreasonable abuse, but you will come out the other side. And don’t panic and hand your notice in. There is no need for it. It often means acceptance in an odd sort of when she puts someone through this; and then to your amazement you find out you have a bright future at this school. Just bear with her, it is her way.”

This had seemed very bewildering because Miss Black had always been nice to her, if very formal, and she was not aware of having done anything to put a headmistress in a fury, unless just possibly Miss Black was objecting to her going on a political demonstration; but it had been in her own time and, anyway, how could Miss Black possibly know about it? How should she proceed, she wondered? Should she let Miss Black accuse her of whatever she was accusing her of, or take the bull by the horns and ask what was the matter as soon as she got through the door?

But nothing in Miss Oakley’s kindly meant comments or her own cogitations prepared her for what happened when she shut the door of the Headmistress’s study behind her. Miss Black, who was unusually tall for a woman, rose immediately from her desk and Elizabeth Thomson realized that, for the first time in her life, she was looking at a cane, and rather a large one at that. Could it really have been four feet long, her later self wondered? And Miss Black was swishing it ferociously. Elizabeth Thomson, aged 23, nearly ran out of the room in fright, but her feet froze. And anyway, she thought to herself, ‘She is probably only trying to frighten me, I must stay calm like Miss Oakley said.’

And then she heard, “I am not going to waste time and words on you, when we both know what you have done. Summary justice seems the quickest for both of us. Bend over, right over, and touch your toes.”

“You’re not going to c-c-cane me, are you Miss Black? I have not done anything!”

“You most certainly have. If there is anything to discuss we will discuss it after your punishment, but I suspect when it comes down to it you will be quite happy to have bent over and had your sins erased from the record. Now bend over.”

Even two or three years later, the older Miss Thomson reflected, she would have refused point blank to bend until she was told why she was being punished. And two or three years after that, she would almost certainly have refused the punishment and gone in search of another job. But as it was, she succumbed to the sheer scale of Miss Black’s anger and bent, devoutly hoping her tight skirt was not going to burst at the seams and the punishment with said skirt on to defend her bottom would not be too unbearable.

“Bend further, girl! I want to see your knickers through your skirt.”

Elizabeth always wondered if her knickers were in fact visible through her dark black skirt when her hands reached the extra foot or eighteen inches down to her toes. However, her clothes felt skin tight across her bottom and she waited for her caning with more than slight apprehension.

This took a little while to happen as Miss Black first of all carefully practised her stroke and then tapped her victim’s bottom four or five times with quite large intervals between each tap. Then the cane swished and seemed to go through Elizabeth’s clothes as if they were not there and deep into her plump young bottom. Her whole body seemed to jerk, but being a fairly tough creature in some ways at least she bit back the tears and just said, “Ow!”

This in turn seemed to summon Miss Black to greater efforts and the second and third strokes were extremely painful. By the third stroke she was crying a lot, though she was still managing to bite back a strong desire to shriek. This did not last beyond the fourth stroke and she got extremely worked up, howling and making odd noises and wondering if this dire punishment would ever stop. They got to the sixth stroke and she expected it to stop, but to Elizabeth’s horror a seventh stroke landed straight on top of the sixth without a pause.

“Please!” She somewhere found the strength to beg. “Whatever I have done, I am so sorry. Please!”

“Since you have now apologised, this is the last one.” She heard the surprisingly measured voice of the Headmistress.

And it was the last stroke, though it was also the hardest and very unkindly placed to cross over the previous seven. Elizabeth found herself clutching her bottom in considerable discomfort and saying she had never known anything could hurt so much.

“That was your first caning, wasn’t it?” Miss Black was saying almost amiably as she put the cane away. “Most girls say something like that the first time they have the cane. And, it must be said, most girls don’t come back for a second helping, which is why I use it, though a lot of my fellow headmistresses would say it is much too severe for the fairer sex.

“Now, Miss Thomson, do you really feel there is anything to discuss, that is worth discussing? If you do I suggest you go and talk to Miss Oakley about something to calm your bottom down, and then come and see me in perhaps three quarters of an hour or an hour. If you want to that is. You certainly don’t have to.”

The young Elizabeth Thomson had said that she really did want to discuss what had just happened and would be back and staggered out to Miss Oakley. It was hard to tell if the secretary was shocked or amused, or both.

“Well, that is a first time! I have known her cane a senior girl for theft from another pupil, but I have never known her punish a mistress before. Come along, I will clean you up. Then we had better get you a cup of tea and an aspirin. I expect you are suffering from a bit of shock.”

The older Miss Thomson found her fairly exact recall started to wane at that point. She could remember Miss Oakley rubbing cream of some sort in. Had it been in the flatlet she shared with Anna Davies, or somewhere else? But where ever it was she could remember both the relief and the odd sensuousness of it. The cup of tea, she could not recall actually drinking, but presumably she had. She could remember the agonising throbbing and burning turning to something almost pleasant by the time she returned to the Headmistress’s study, but she doubted if it had been worth the sheer agony that she had been through.

“I half thought you would not be back for a lecture after your punishment.” She always remembered Miss Black saying in a half amused way, but the Headmistress had been almost reasonable demanding to know why Miss Thomson thought her punishment was harsh or undeserved.

“I just do not know what I have done,” said Elizabeth with an air of aggrieved innocence. “Even if I did say I was sorry.”

“Well, perhaps we had better find you a cushion while I explain it to you.” Miss Black responded with something approaching a smile.

Then Elizabeth was sitting wriggling most uncomfortably on a large cushion on a wooden chair in front of the Headmistress’s desk.

“Have you seen this?”

Elizabeth found herself staring at a cutting from a paper. It was a photo of a group of women in Black Shirt uniform. Presumably it was from the march that had led to the Cable Street riot on the previous Sunday. And, yes, there she was in white skirt and black blouse next to Doris Corbould, who had been her best friend since college and had introduced her to the Fascist movement that Oswald Mosley led.

“Yes, it is me, Miss Black. I am not disputing it. But it was a political demonstration. It was my own time. I was entitled to be there.”

“It did lead to a major riot,” replied Miss Black dryly.

“Yes!” Said Elizabeth vehemently. “But that was all the Jews and the Communists. We were on a peaceful demonstration and they stopped us and fought the Police when they tried to get us through. We had to give up on the demonstration and go home. You surely did not cane me for just walking in a peaceful demonstration, did you?”

“No, I caned you for quite remarkable stupidity. The very fact you were there suggests to me that you share this extraordinary belief that the Jews are the root of all evil.”

“But everybody says the Jews are the root of all our problems, especially the Bankers caused the Depression, and they are trying to get England involved in a war with Germany. And I don’t want another war. My father and uncle both died in the last one.”

“I am going to read you something,” said Miss Black. “I am afraid it will be a little halting because the original is in German. It is a letter I received this morning from an old Jewish friend in Germany. You may possibly recall my degree is in Modern Languages and at various times I have spent a good deal of time in Germany.”

The letter was a grim document. It detailed the way that the civil rights of the Jews in Germany were being curtailed in every direction, and went on with horrible prescience to forecast some kind of major pogrom that would dwarf the ones in Tsarist Russia. And it begged for help to get at least the writer’s children to England.

The older Miss Thomson remembered she started to listen to that letter in anger and distrust and ended almost in tears as it dawned on her that this was the exact truth and she had been horribly misled by Doris and her other fascist friends.

“But you could just have read me the letter. There was no need to cane me!” The younger Elizabeth found herself saying.

“I doubt if the letter by itself would have had the required impact. Besides, I was so angry with you when this letter came this morning that I did not feel I had any choice. I had been going to talk to you mildly, but it made me so angry; and anger as deep as that needs expression. Besides stupidity on the scale you have been guilty of deserves condign punishment.”

The older Miss Thomson remembered wriggling crossly on her cushion and thinking seriously about going to the Police to complain she had been assaulted, but somehow she never did. Perhaps she was too fond of Miss Black, who she always rather perversely liked in spite of the severity of the punishment. Certainly, she stayed at that school till the outbreak of war (when she joined up) and in the process learnt a lot from Miss Black, who despite her occasional frenzies was a very good headmistress. Perhaps there was a certain frisson in being able to say that she had suffered a real caning; so few women of her generation had experienced anything as severe as that, and yet, though she occasionally thought rather wryly about the experience, she had never actually told anyone that it had happened.

*          *          *

‘But where does that leave me now?’ Miss Thomson wondered to herself, realizing to her annoyance that she was in tears over this dire event of over thirty years before, and to cap it all the sun had gone and it was beginning to rain. She put up her umbrella and turned reluctantly for home, still with no idea at all of what to do the following morning.

Sunday night was not pleasant. Miss Thomson did not sleep much for worrying about what to do, especially about Audrey, who was such a promising girl. When she did get to sleep she had a very frightening dream. Audrey was wearing the Oxford Bags, the trousers that were briefly fashionable in the Thirties, and was being soundly caned on the seat of them by Miss Black. She was shrieking and putting her hands over her bottom and generally making a fuss. And what was making it worse was the fact that the grown Miss Thomson was next in line and she knew the punishment was going to be on her bare bottom.

As a result, when the Headmistress finally got up she seriously wondered if she should do anything about sorting this matter out. Perhaps it would be simplest to pretend she had not done what she hardly ever did and watched the Television news. However, she concluded, it would not be good for school discipline generally if she let this go; the girls would know what had been going on, even if nothing was said officially. They always did.

She waited a good half an hour after assembly in the hope that Miss Pocock would have the sense to come herself and make a clean breast of everything that had happened on this infamous school trip. However, finally, she lost patience and sent Miss Arkwright (her own version of Miss Oakley, she thought rather amusedly to herself) in pursuit of Miss Pocock.

“And Miss Danvers as well? She was the other mistress in charge, wasn’t she?” Miss Arkwright asked, clearly sensing something was going on.

“Possibly I will talk to Miss Danvers later, but it is Miss Pocock that I want to see at this moment.”

Miss Danvers was young and innocent and quite likely to say all the wrong things that her headmistress did not want to know.

Miss Pocock duly arrived, looking a touch sheepish, Miss Thomson thought.

“How did the weekend go? Was The Merchant of Venice as good as it’s supposed to be?”

“Better, if anything. And the other plays were very reasonable; Winter’s Tale, especially.”

“Winter’s Tale was Saturday afternoon, wasn’t it? Did it go down as well as the Merchant of Venice?” Miss Thomson asked innocently.

“I am afraid it was not so popular and a couple of them rebelled and said couldn’t they go round town instead. They’d had enough Shakespeare. I suppose I could have made a fuss, but it is always difficult to discipline Sixth Formers, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and let them slip off. They did go to the other plays.”

“You know, Miss Pocock, I happened to do what I hardly ever do and switched on the Television news. I found myself looking at a group of demonstrators against nuclear weapons, and among them were Audrey Milne, Elizabeth Godfrey and Susan Kavanagh. There may, quite possibly, have been some others of our girls there, but neither I nor Bates were quite sure. And incidentally, they were in slacks and not school uniform, which I find almost as horrifying as their being at this demonstration when they should have been watching a Shakespeare play at Stratford. So, perhaps Miss Pocock, you would be kind enough to tell me what actually happened and cease your ridiculous prevarication.”

‘And if you don’t, I will dismiss you,’ Miss Thomson thought, but she did not actually say it aloud.

“I really did not know what to do,” Said Miss Pocock desperately. “The first I knew about it was when they did not come down for breakfast. I sent Miss Danvers to their room to investigate and they had left a note, to be fair, saying they were going to this demonstration outside a bomber base and they hoped I would understand it was a matter of principle, but anyway they would be sure to be back by ten that evening.”

“So why on earth did you not ring me, or at least tell me as soon as you got back to the school? I should not be having to drag this out of you, Miss Pocock, really I shouldn’t.”

“I suppose I was worried three very nice girls were going to get expelled, so I dealt with them myself. If it was the wrong decision. I apologise, but it seemed the best thing to do at the time.”

“So what did you do?” Asked Miss Thomson irritably.

“I interviewed them one at a time, even though it was after ten, and gave them a tremendous lecture about letting the school down and all that. I almost left it to you to decide the actual punishments. Then I thought you would have to expel them, headmistress, and you might prefer not to know about this, and it was not ordinary naughtiness, but they were acting on a question of principle, so in the end they had the cane the following morning. I had been so annoyed when I found the note that I had gone out and bought a couple of canes; and I nearly summarily caned them when they deigned to return. But I am quite glad that I didn’t. It gave them a chance to give their side of the story and then they had a night to think about their sins before they were punished. They asked if they could have the cane in slacks and briefs as none of them had brought school knickers with them, which I agreed to as I thought it had a certain practicality. And anyway, I am not sure it is quite nice for girls of that age to be punished on their underwear.”

“No, quite probably not.” Said Miss Thomson thoughtfully, remembering her own encounter with Miss Black’s cane and how her tight skirt had not given her that much protection. “How did the actual punishments go? Did they make much fuss about it?”

“We had them in, one at time, in my and Miss Danvers’ room at the guest house. They each bent over the side of one of the single beds. Audrey Mills had undoubtedly written the note and thought up the whole thing, though I think she was slightly misled by a boy who had more or less picked her up. Anyway, she was undoubtedly the ring leader and I gave her a very hard six of the best. She was extremely brave. A born martyr, our Miss Mills. Her tight little bottom wriggled about a good deal and she had at any rate some moisture in her eyes when it it was over, but considering how hard she was being thrashed she made remarkably little fuss.

“I gave Elizabeth Godfrey just three, because I thought she is always told what to think by Audrey and has been all the way up the school, but she yelped considerably more than Audrey and I had to stop after each stroke because she kept putting her hands back over her bottom. I nearly gave her an extra one for that, but somehow I didn’t.

“Then finally I gave Susan five, though they were not as hard as Audrey’s six of the best. She has been slippered quite a lot on her way up the school, and I think you caned her once for smoking, so I thought a couple more strokes than Elizabeth got was appropriate. I concentrated on the lower part of that big bottom of hers and I think I got through to her. She did not make much noise during the punishment, but she was in unstoppable floods of tears at the end of it. I think she cried all morning, though she went to the play later. Actually they all did, though they wriggled liked mad, especially Audrey, who I think could barely sit down and is still looking sore this morning.”

Miss Thomson sighed a little, for she found herself feeling a certain sympathy with the punished girls, but all she asked aloud was whether the punishments had caused any complications with the Guest House owners.

“Oh, they were all in favour of it,” said Miss Pocock very dryly. “The woman said it was time that some of these demonstrators had what for. And they teased the girls afterwards more than I thought was fair. But there you are. It could well have been awkward as you say, Miss Thomson, but mercifully it was alright. But, Miss Thomson, I did give my word to the girls, that if they took the cane then it would end there.”

“I will honour your word, Miss Poock.” Miss Thomson said very formally. “In fact, in many a way I wish I had not known about this. Strictly, I suppose I ought to expel the lot of them, but I won’t do it if you gave them your word. And in fact I am rather glad of an excuse not to have to expel Audrey, who is as promising a girl as we have had in years. I wonder if she will end up as an MP?”

“So, I may take it, headmistress, that this conversation, and indeed the events of this weekend, never happened?” Miss Pocock asked with the faintest of smiles on her face.

“Yes, you may take that as understood, Miss Pocock, and perhaps you would be kind enough to tell the three girls and Miss Danvers that is the position, that this whole thing never happened, as far as I am concerned.”

*          *          *

And so, in a sense, this strange episode ended. Except, that is, for a conversation between Headmistress and Head Girl over a year later when Audrey was in the Scholarship Sixth.

They always enjoyed chattering away about the world in general and somehow got on to when it is alright to tell a white lie, when Audrey said thoughtfully, “You probably really know about what happened when Miss Pocock took the Sixth Form English set to Stratford, even though officially you are supposed not to.”

Miss Thomson almost denied all knowledge, but then thought that if Audrey wanted to talk about it perhaps it was not that bad a thing; she had never discussed her own encounter with Miss Black and increasingly she felt it would have been better if she had told someone.

“I think you are referring to when a certain young lady, who I will not name, had the hiding of her life for going on a demonstration without any permission and leading on others to be do the same and was extremely lucky not to be expelled.” Miss Thomson said with a grin.

“The certain young lady was led on by a really smashing boy she met at the theatre,” Said Audrey, “who I am sorry to say got off without a mark on his back side, lucky devil. But what would have happened if those girls had refused to take Miss Pocock’s punishment and thrown themselves on your mercy? They very nearly did and I have always wondered what you would have done.”

“I might have caned the said trio before I expelled them,” Miss Thomson responded, “because I always take truancy extremely seriously; but I might have shown a little leniency and just expelled them, because a question of principle was so clearly involved. On the whole, I think those three girls were better off taking Miss Pocock’s caning, severe though that was. Did the girls resent it at all? Or did they feel it was a fair punishment?”

“I got as far as writing to my Dad and saying, was it fair? And wasn’t my caning especially way over the top and perhaps we should take it to the Police? He wrote me a very long letter talking about Gandhi and his principle that if you use Civil Disobedience against the Civil Power then you must expect sanctions to be used against you, so, in the end I just left it. And since then the longer I have thought about it the more I have felt contrite that we let you and the school down so badly. I really am sorry Miss Thomson.”

“Thank you very much for saying that, Audrey.” The headmistress replied, breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief as she realized that her school might have been investigated by the Police and there could well have been stories in the papers and god knows what.

Then she added, “It is a bizarre coincidence, Audrey, but I had the cane when I was young for taking part in a Blackshirt demonstration. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Not really, Miss.”

“Well, it was all a very long time ago. The Blackshirts were on Hitler’s side and against the Jews, and I had been brainwashed by some of my friends into thinking the Jews were the root of all evil. Like you, I thought it was terribly unfair at the time and I almost went to the Police, but somehow I didn’t. But it certainly made me think. Perhaps it was a good thing in the end. But god it hurt. Even with a skirt on it really hurt.”

“What did you get?” asked Audrey.

“Eight.” Said Miss Thomson almost inaudibly.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Audrey exclaimed. “That is two more than I got and that was unbelievably painful, though I was determined I was not going to make a sound and I did not. Poor Elizabeth yelled like a stuck pig and Suzy wasn’t much better.”

“I think I was somewhere in the middle,” said her Headmistress. “I started by biting my lip, but around the fourth or fifth stroke I started to yell, and my bottom was going up and down like a concertina.”

“Come to think of it, so was mine.”

“I really think we had better talk about more pleasant things.” Miss Thomson stated decisively, suddenly feeling this conversation was getting much too intimate, fond though she was of the girl. “I am really glad about the news of your scholarship, Audrey. PPE should suit you very well, judging by this conversation. You have obviously thought very seriously about what Gandhi had to say about what happens when you have to stand up for a matter of principle. Yes, you should do very well on that course, though you will have to work like a beaver at Economics.”

And yet, after the girl had gone, she could not help imagining what it would have been like to cane her favourite’s tight little bottom as it went ‘up and down like a concertina’ and that half painful, half sensuous image stayed with her for the rest of her life, though whether this was a good thing or a bad thing she was never that sure. But at least the memory of her collision with Miss Black’s cane became much less painful.

The End

© Jane Fairweather 2019

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