Twenty years on a schoolgirl returns to her old school as a member of staff but has anything changed? By a new writer to us.
By Tara Patterson
Finally Lake Windermere came into view and, as the road twisted around the hills, Tara gazed upon a sight she hadn’t seen for nearly twenty years. It was only Tony Blackburn’s voice on the car radio that reminded her it was 2015 and that she was listening to the chart of 1995 when ‘Take That’ were number one in the charts with ‘Back for Good’.
Tara was 35, 5’4” tall with brunette hair and a shapely size 12 figure. After a couple of failed relationships she had become bored with life on the family farm in the Lincolnshire Fens. Browsing the usual old friend’s reunited sites on the net she had come across an advertisement for her old school; Queen Anne’s Boarding school, Ambleside, who were looking for a temporary Examination Invigilator. Fancying a change, Tara had applied on a whim and been accepted without interview. Her credentials as an ‘old Sphinx’ seemed to have opened doors and what’s more the pay seemed ok with accommodation provided in a beautiful part of the country. What would be a better way to spend a few months?
Tara swung her blue Fiesta into the lakeside car park at Ambleside. The scene was just as she remembered. The pleasure boats and sailing dinghies fussed about in the lake. The ice-cream kiosk seemed to be doing a roaring trade on this hot, late April, Saturday afternoon whilst next door the mock Tudor half-timbered bulk of Queen Anne’s School dominated the lakeside. As much as she really could do with an ice cream now, Tara thought.
“No, that was out of bounds back then. It probably still is now.”
After parking her car, Tara had a quick look in the mirror before swinging out her shapely legs and making her way to the tall imposing school gates at the left of the car park. She felt a little overdressed among the tourists in her smart dress and jacket, her legs clad in sheer stockings and her peep toed heels clicking across the pavement.
Queen Anne’s was a traditional boarding school in all senses. The building had once been a stately home before being converted to school use during the Second World War. The curriculum, uniform and discipline standards of its early years were strictly maintained. For most of the year the female pupils wore navy blue gymslips and blazers with black stockings and a white blouse, whilst the younger male pupils wore flannel shorts and knee socks all year. School hats were worn by all pupils when outdoors; a cap for the boys and a straw boater for the girls.
Tara paused before she opened the heavy gate and headed for the main reception. The brightly polished brass Sphinx in the centre of the gates, the school mascot, twinkled in the sun. Being a Saturday, the desk was manned by two sixth form girls. Both were wearing the summer uniform of blue gingham checked dress, navy blazer with white ankle socks and black Mary Jane shoes.
“I’m Patterson. S-Sorry, Miss Patterson, the new Invigilator,” said Tara as the girls looked up from the desk.
“Welcome to Queen Anne’s, Ma’am,” said the larger of the two girls. “Have you been here before?”
“Yes, sort of. I’m an old girl. I left in 96. I am supposed to report to your Headmaster when I arrive.”
“This way please,” said the girl as she started along the dark corridor towards the headmaster’s office. Tara scanned the group photos that lined the wall looking for any of her year
The headmaster’s office was at the end of the corridor behind a dark varnished door. Tara couldn’t help smiling when she noticed the small traffic lights screwed to the left hand door frame. The little red light shone brightly.
“Crikey! Things haven’t changed here. I have spent many an hour waiting for these to turn green. I’ll be ok now, thank you. You might as well get back.” Tara said to the girl as she sat down to wait.
Lost in the moment, Tara thought she heard the crack of a cane and a yelp coming from behind the door. There it was again; the yep louder this time, and again. Tara strained to listen. In all, she counted six strokes.
Suddenly the door opened and out came a tall boy, probably another sixth former. He was wearing games kit and clutching his backside, whilst his eyes were red with tears visibly streaming down his face.
Tara looked at the boy trying to say without words: ‘I know, mate. It hurts, I’ve been there.’
Just then the small speaker behind Tara’s head cracked into life.
“You may enter now, Miss Patterson.”
‘Here goes,’ thought Tara. As she got up to enter she paused briefly to subconsciously smooth down her dress.
The inside of the headmaster’s study strongly resembled that of an old gentleman’s club. The bookcases and walls were a dark varnished wood. In the corner stood two dark brown leather arm chairs whilst the centre of the study was dominated by Mr Lanes large varnished walnut desk.
Instinctively Tara stood on the worn patch of carpet in front of the desk and before she knew it she had curtsied and said: “Good afternoon, headmaster.”
Mr Lane was the classic traditional British headmaster. He was in his late 50s with a slightly balding head, a greying moustache and round steel-rimmed glasses. He was wearing an old and well-worn tweed suit.
“Good afternoon, Miss Patterson,” began the Headmaster. “I see your time here has left a good impression on you. Such formality is not as necessary now that you are a member of Staff, but thank you, and thank you for joining our staff at such an important and critical time of the year. I see that you have returned your contracts and now your CRB check has come back clear I am delighted to confirm that you may start work as agreed on Monday.”
Mr Lane then told Tara about the School, what changes there had been since she left in 1996, and important policy notes such as the Staff dress code and discipline.
“We have taken the liberty of supplying you with a Gym kit, should you wish to use the school PE facilities. It’s the same style as the one our pupils wear but you will find the gym skirt and knickers to be in maroon instead of the usual navy blue. As for discipline, you will note that we pride ourselves in maintaining the same high standards that you experienced during your time here.”
“Yes Sir,” replied Tara. “I did notice the condition of the pupil who was in here before me. You still use the cane, I take it? I thought it was outlawed in 2000?”
Mr Lane smiled briefly.
“It was, Miss Patterson, although we are able to use a little known legal loophole that allows us still to continue the use of all types of corporal punishment. With Parental consent, of course.”
As he spoke, the Headmaster produced a large leather-bound ledger; the words “Punishment Record 1990-2000” were embossed in gold on the cover.
“I see from this that you are no stranger to the cane yourself, Miss Patterson?”
“Yes, sort of, sir. I’m sure the name Patterson T J, Wordsworth House, is on a few pages.”
“Quite a character, it seems, bit of a rebel, in fact.” Mr Lane noted dryly.
“Yes sir. In fact I think I have bent over most of the furniture in this study for a caning at one time or another. Your predecessor, Mrs Priestley, was quite a skilled and accomplished caner. She used to weld it with quite ferocity, from what I can remember.”
“Right, now we must move on,” interrupted the Headmaster. “To matters more pressing, your accommodation. Unfortunately Mrs Baxter who usually lodges our temporary staff has been taken unwell. It’s not serious but we feel that it wouldn’t be fair on her to impose yourself and a student teacher on her.
“It’s also the height of the tourist season here in the Lake District so rooms are very scarce and expensive. If it’s to your liking we have found a spare room for you on one of our dormitory floors. The good thing for you is that this will be rent free. However Matron is most insistent that if you are to stay on her floor she wishes the least disruption to the other girls so you must follow the school dormitory rules. She assures me that you will be treated no different to any of the other girls.
“We thought the sixth form code would be most appropriate. Up at 06:30, breakfast at 07:00 sharp with curfew at 21:00 and lights out at 21:30. No food, alcohol or males in your room at any time and all radios and electronic devices must be turned off at curfew time.”
“Well that sounds fine to me, Sir,” said Tara. “It will be nice to live as one of the girls again. Please put me on the domestics rota too. I don’t mind a bit of washing up and I always felt happier using the bath if it was me who had cleaned it. I want to fit in. It’s only until the end of term; I survived 5 years of it before. Which room am I in?”
“Let me see, I have the number here somewhere,” said the Headmaster rifling through the papers on his desk. “Ah yes, here it is, room 234, front corridor, upper landing.”
“You are joking Sir? That’s my old room! Well, apart from my first year in the large attic dorm it was my home here.”
Room 234 was on the first floor overlooking the lake. It was about the size of a normal double bedroom. Its only furniture was two pairs of wooden bunk beds and a sink next to the single sash window. Across the corridor and down two steps was an open hall area that housed the doors to the bathrooms, toilets and Matron’s surgery. Two other doors also lead off the hall both marked ‘FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY’. One was a door leading to an outside fire escape ladder and the second lead through what the girls knew as ‘The Berlin Wall’ to the Boys dormitories.
Tara soon felt back at home, although only she and a student teacher shared the room. Tara opted to take her old bed, the top of the left hand bunk. Miss Nicholson, who travelled home at weekends, slept on the bottom of the right hand bunk. The 06:30 to 21:30 routine also suited Tara. As this was exam season her working day was filled with invigilating exams and packaging up the completed scripts for posting to the marking authority.
During her leisure time Tara began to play badminton and rounders again, and was accepted by the lower sixth girls into the house team. Tara felt she occupied a unique and privileged position. During the day she was respected and acknowledge by the pupils as one of the staff, whilst in the evenings the pupils dropped the ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Miss’ prefix and Tara became Patterson just another one of the girls.
Just after midnight on the Saturday at the end of Tara’s second week the whole school was rudely awakened by the shrill scream of the fire alarm. Tara looked down at her roommate’s empty bed and thought: ‘Lucky sod, I bet she is nice and warm tucked up with her fiancé back home in Lancaster while we are dragged out of bed at this ungodly hour. Bet it’s a false alarm and it’s probably blooming raining out there.’
Tara jumped down from her bunk, found a pair of mule sandals under the bed and slid them on along with her thick dressing gown. She was glad to be wearing a thick pair of winter pyjamas.
As Tara and the other boarders streamed down the main staircase, the alarm stopped. Matron’s voice called out over the noise of feet on the stairs.
“Stand Down! False Alarm. Back to bed Attic and rear upper Dorms! Everyone from the front upper Dorms report to the main hall immediately! That’s all occupants of rooms 220 to 235 to the main hall this instant!”
As the thirty or so girls shuffled into the main Hall and passed down the rows of single exam desks, Mr Lane stopped Tara by the door.
“My apologies for the disturbance, Miss Patterson. Someone has been in or out of the Fire exit near your room. The alarm is triggered when the door opens. It has to be one of your neighbours. Go back to bed, my dear, we will soon get to the cause of this and find the culprits.”
“Sir,” began Tara after a moment’s thought. “With the greatest of respect I will not return to my room. Did you not say when I joined the school and was billeted in 234 that I was to be treated equally to the pupils on all matters that came under Matron’s control? I understand what has happened and the course of action that you may take. It happened frequently during my own schooldays. Hopefully my presence here, in line with the others, may assist you to flush out the culprits. If it doesn’t, then please treat me no different to any other girl here.”
Mr Lane seemed a little taken aback by this. He changed his tone of voice and addressed the group.
“Very well then. Right, you girls line up in front of the stage, room order. Jump to it. That means you all! Patterson, Norton, get a move on! In line, now! Hands on your heads all of you.”
Soon all the girls were in line with their hands on their heads, most in nightwear, others in PE kits, and one or two in crumpled uniform dresses. Matron began to speak, walking slowly up and down the line looking at each girl in turn.
“At least one of you, possibly more, is responsible for us all being here tonight. I for one do not appreciate being woken up at this time on a Sunday morning. I’m sure that those of you who know nothing of this matter feel the same. You are all present so it must be someone here. Will the person or persons who opened the landing fire escape door please step forward?”
No one moved.
“Very well, Ladies, I will make you a deal,” said Matron as she un-clipped a leather strap from the belt of her dark blue uniform. “Should the guilty party be mature enough to own up now they will each receive six strokes of my strap and that will be the end of the matter. However should no one step forward then all the assembled community here will each receive four strokes of the strap. Be under no illusion, I will find those responsible and when I do they will be going straight to the Headmaster’s office for at least six strokes of the cane.”
Still all the girls remained in line.
“Right, so be it. It’s all of you then.” Matron thundered. “Descending room order, I think. Room 235, make your way to the front row of desks. Assume the position. If you are wearing a dressing gown take it off.”
Slowly the three sixth form girls of 235 made their way to the front row of desks. They each bent over a desk facing their peers, each one gripped the table legs tightly. The first girl, Sarah Lonsdale, was wearing a uniform dress. Tara noticed a small smirk of defiance on a her face as Matron lifted Sarah’s dress and pulled down her knickers.
Four swings of the strap later, Sarah’s smirk had been replaced by tears and cries of pain.
“Such fuss, pull yourself together young lady!” Scolded matron as she moved to the next girl.
“I said, dressing gowns off, Norton! As usual, you are not listening.”
“S-Sorry Ma’am,” begged the hapless girl. Tara recognised her as the girl who had welcomed her to the school two weeks ago. “I usually sleep naked, Ma’am. C-can’t you just lift up my dressing gown like you did with Lonsdale’s dress, Ma’am?”
“Very well, Norton. Brace yourself, girl.”
Soon all three inhabitants of room 235 had been reduced to cries and tears.
“Right! Next, room 234 step forward,” called the Headmaster.
“It’s just me, sir,” whispered Tara as she walked to the desk recently vacated by Susan Norton. As Tara removed her dressing gown, she looked at Matron.
“It’s been a while, Ma’am. Please do this fairly. I expect no leniency.”
Tara lay down across the small square desk, her arms stretched over the front and gripping the steel legs. As she looked forward she saw twenty-nine pairs of eyes watching her every move. The surface of the table was still wet with Norton’s tears.
“Be brave, Tara,” she thought. “Count to four, then it’s over. Breathe deeply? Tara felt Matron’s fingers in the waistband of her pyjama bottoms, then the cool of the air on her now bare bottom. She waited.
THWAK! The first blow caught Tara off guard.
“Arrrh, one. Thank-you, Ma’am,” she cried, trying hard to not openly start crying like the others.
“Owww! Two, thank-you, Ma’am.”
‘Two more, Tara. You can do it. No tears,” her inner voice seemed to egg her on.
THWACK! The third stroke landed almost on top of the first.
“Arrrh! Three, thank you, Ma’am. ARRRH!”
THWACK! Matron delivered the final stroke before Tara had finished speaking. Tara gripped the desk tightly to try and absorb the shock. Tears streamed down her cheeks. It took all of her composure and inner strength to mutter: “Four, thank you Ma’am.”
From somewhere behind her, a voice said: “You may get up now, Patterson.”
Tara stood and faced Matron, her pyjama bottoms pooled around her ankles.
Matron smiled. “Well done, Patterson, you are an example to all those assembled. Ladies, that is how a Sphinx takes her punishment; with dignity and courage.”
All of a sudden, a blond girl standing at the end of the row broke down and started sobbing loudly.
“Stop this, Matron, Stop. It was me. I’m the one. I can’t stand to see any more of this. Cane me if you have to. I’m so sorry. I’m a coward. Girls who have been strapped, please forgive me.”
“Very well!” Boomed Mr Lane. “House dismissed. Back to bed all of you. Davies, I will see you in my study after morning prayers; 09:30 sharp. Matron, Please attend too. I have a caning I wish you to witness.”
© Tara Patterson 2015