I went for a walk this morning, as I do almost everyday if I am able to - just a short walk into the remnant bushland near my home. The bush is meant to be the centre of the Australian psyche. We're actually one of the most urbanized nations on earth, but we still take our connections to the bush - to the outback - very seriously. There are pockets of bushland preserved even in the large cities, and it doesn't take long for us to get out into the real bush if we want to. I rarely have the time - but I do get a bit of contact with it on my daily walks.
Today, while I was walking, it started to rain - and as I headed for home, it got heavier and heavier. As often happens, as I walk, I was remembering past events in my life - and the memory that came to mind is one that's likely to be of interest here, and so I'm going to set it down.
It was my final year at school - the year when I was in Sixth Form, the year when I was Captain of my House, and therefore also a school prefect. As related previously - and mentioned now just for those who haven't read what's come before - I was unusually young for a Sixth Form boy, two years younger than was normal, but had become Captain of my House despite this fact. And, at my school, that made me one of a small number of boys who were all but exempted from caning ourselves, and of the even smaller number who were permitted to use the cane on others.
It was a Monday just after the start of winter - and for some reason, I can't remember we had a day free of classes. But we still had one commitment - a school assembly after breakfast - before the day was our own.
The weather had been absolutely foul for days. It's hard to describe the effect this has on a boarding school to anyone who hasn't experienced it - but a situation where active, energetic boys in large numbers are cooped up indoors for nearly the entire weekend is not conducive to a pleasant or relaxing existence - and as House Captain, I was one of those responsible for trying to maintain discipline and control. I'd spent much of the weekend yelling at boys who came in dripping wet and muddied up the entrance hall to the House - yelling, screaming, pleading, and threatening them to clean up their act and the mess they'd made. I wasn't in the best of humour - especially as the absence of classes meant that I was now facing a third day of it.
But as the assembly was ending, the Headmaster finally announced a reprieve.
"As you all know, because of the horrible weather, we've been experiencing, I cancelled all outdoor activities after sport on Saturday, and I had intended to leave that in place until the weather improved. But at the rate, things are going that probably won't be until October.
"So I'm changing that - there'll still be no official outdoor activities until further notice, but provided boys shower and change afterwards, you can use the playing fields - sports uniforms please, the Matron does not want any more uniforms dirtied. You can also walk out under the normal weekend conditions - but you must wear your slicks and, again, try not to ruin your clothing.
"And keep to the bounds - you all know the areas that are out of bounds - and I want you to remember them. Especially the sites. Despite what I said at the start of term, I'm still getting complaints from the builders about boys from this school going onto their sites. I'm going to make it clear one more time - all the sites are completely and totally out of bounds - and if any boy is caught on one of them, he's facing serious consequences. Please boys - don't force me to make an example of one of you."
The sites were building site. When our school was built, many, many years before I became a pupil there, it was chosen as a pretty ideal setting. Fairly isolated, surrounded only by bushland, occasional farms, small villages nearby, and lying on a beautiful small bay. It was a great place for a school.
Unfortunately things change. By the time I was at the school, a huge refinery had been built south of us and was sharing our bay. And small suburban housing estates were beginning to get closer and closer to us.
We didn't like this - I'd been at the school five and a half years - and places I'd used to be able to walk in almost pristine bushland now had houses on them. We were still fairly isolated (except for the refinery which we pointedly ignored) - but there was a new estate about to be built on a hill about half a mile from the school - and the people in that estate would be able to see into our school, and we'd be able to see them. We regarded this entire region as our own - and we felt like we were being invaded. We didn't like being told where we could and couldn't go - even though most of us knew there were sensible safety reasons for keeping us off sites. And a few boys even occasionally, went onto sites and did a little bit of damage - nothing that serious, but things that certainly caused the builders some inconvenience, I suppose. So I can understand why they were complaining.
All of the prefects had been told to keep an eye out for boys heading to the sites on our own walks outside the school with strict instructions to impress on any boy we saw breaking bounds the seriousness of their actions.
After assembly - well, frankly, I wanted out of the school for a while. I had been cooped up and screaming at my friends and others all weekend. I didn't fancy football on the playing fields and it was too wet for any other game. So I decided to go for a walk.
We wore our uniforms virtually all the time at school - outside school hours, the standards relaxed a bit - you could take your tie off, and prefects and masters became a little less officious about having your shirt tucked in and your socks pulled up, but we wore the uniform constantly. In my case, I tended to wear the uniform properly - I was very attached to the school, and I took pride in being a member of the school community. I rarely took my tie off, or even my suit coat or blazer unless it was very hot. Partly because I believed in looking my best - but also by this stage was because my blazer marked who I was in the school.
People could tell I was a house captain, and a prefect from my blazer pocket - as well as other less significant details like the fact that I was Captain of Debating. Our blazer pockets were in a sense like both rank insignia, and medal ribbons - we could read them and immediately know a great deal about what other people had accomplished, and their place in the school. For this reason, once I first started getting anything to wear on my pocket, I always wore the blazer when I could so people could tell who I was.
Now - the Headmaster had given permission for us to leave the school on walks. This was quite normal - we were allowed to do so a lot. It was actually unusual to be prevented from going out in your spare time, but the weather really had been very bad, and it still wasn't much better. So the Headmaster had told us that if we left the school, we had to wear our slicks.
Slicks was the term we used for our wet weather gear. Basically a very heavy oilskin coat. Every boy in the school had one of these coats, it was officially part of our uniform - kind of the traditional Australian bushman's coat - with one exception. Ours were light blue in colour. Back then that was unusual, but today they are in a lot of different colours.
I virtually never wore my slick - I don't think I'd worn it at all in fact since the Fourth Form. In fact, the use I'd put it to might interest some readers.
Every Captain was issued with two canes (punishment, for the use of) at the start of the year. We could get replacements if we needed to, but we were expected to take good care of them. The problem was that we didn't really have anywhere to put them - the School Captain had a lock on his door, but the House Captains didn't. And if we left the canes just lying around, they would be likely to disappear. So we had to hide them as best we could.
The best I could figure out was to hide my spare cane in my bookcase - on a shelf with all my Biggles books in front of it. I could get at it in a minute or so simply by moving all the books.
But for my 'in use' cane, I needed faster access - and so I hung it in my wardrobe from a clothes hanger, with my slick hanging over it. Not immediately visible, but easily accessible - and that was about the only use my slick had had recently.
Back to the point - I headed up to my room, removed my blazer and put on my slick, and then I headed downstairs and subsequently out of the school gates.
I really didn't have any plans - I just wanted to walk, and clear my head of the stuffiness that built up when I was forced to spend time inside. There really wasn't that much to do except walk - but that was fine. There was still enough rural flavour in the area to make just walking around an enjoyable experience. And while it was raining quite heavily, my slick did do a good job of keeping me dry.
I took a circuitous route, but eventually - after an hour and a half or so, I found myself coming down by the creek side of the many building sites we had spotted around. This was a large one - I think they were actually putting the roads in - an area about 5 acres or so in size, bounded on three sides by large fences, and an old creek on the other. Most of it has been cleared of trees, leaving piles of dirt, holes, construction machinery, and a few sheds. All grey and wet, and very uninviting - and as I was passing it, I could see two small figures in light blue coats, hiding behind the trees near the sheds.
I look around trying to work out how to get over to them - the creek was only a few feet wide so I decided to take a short run up and jump across. I cleared the creek easily - but the ground was wet and muddy and I slipped and fell. I jumped up in alarm, worried that I'd made my trousers dirty - the matron felt I didn't take enough care with my clothing, and it caused some problems sometimes - but fortunately all was well. My slick was a bit dirty - but nobody expected that to stay spotless.
The noise I made had attracted the attention of the two boys I had seen. I recognized them now - Anthony Hotham and Peter Byrne, two first form boys from my own House. Minor trouble makers, but no malice in them. They saw me looking at them - and headed over to me.
"What the hell are you two doing in here? You heard the Headmaster, didn't you?"
"For the love of... I've a mind to take you up right now and give you a couple each, you little idiots."
"Oh, come on, Rysher - fair go. We were just looking."
"Oh - look if I see either of you doing this again, you will cop it. For now - just get back to school. And don't leave the grounds for the rest of the day. All right?"
"Thanks, Rysher. We won't."
They both scooted off. Why had I let them off? Honestly because I didn't want the hassle. It was a twenty minute walk to school - at least ten minutes to deal with them there, and my walk would be pretty much over. I also didn't particularly relish caning boys for things like that - bullies, I had no problems caning - but using the cane was generally fairly distasteful - but also, sometimes disturbingly satisfying.
I decided that I wasn't going to risk jumping the creek again - at least not at the place where I had just done so - it was too wet and slippery and I didn't expect to be lucky twice. I decided to see if there was an easier way off the site.
I headed towards the fence and could see an open gate. But before I could get to it.
"Got you, you little bastard."
A man - a big man maybe in his fifties came out from behind one the sheds, and grabbed me by the arm.
"Ah - you're hurting me! Let go."
"Not likely, you come with me."
He had a very firm grip on my arm, and he was a lot stronger than me. He dragged me towards the largest shed, and took me inside. When we were inside, he shoved me into a corner, and shut the door. He turned a key and locked it.
"Where is my bloody key?"
"What - it's in your hand!"
"Not this one, you little bastard - the one from the tool shed. The one you nicked."
"Sir - I haven't got your key. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't give me that. You little brats think you own the bloody world. Well, Daddy's not here to get you out of this one, no matter how much money he's got, son. You're going to give me my key - or you'll wish you had."
"Sir, I honestly don't have your key."
"Empty out your pockets."
I did as I was told - the pockets of my slick, and my trouser pockets - he looked at my handkerchief, and the small pile of change I was carrying - and examined my key ring very closely.
"Son - what have you done with it?"
"I don't have it. I've never had it."
"I have HAD IT with you spoiled little rich brats. Jesus, none of you have a clue what it's like to work for a living, do you? This is all a big bloody joke isn't it? Nicking the key out of the tool shed lock isn't going to stop us working you know - we'll just have to cut the bloody thing off. So why don't you just hand it over before I tell your Headmaster what you've been up to?"
"Sir, the Headmaster will tell you that I don't do things like this..."
"Yeah - he probably would too. Three times I've been to your school to see him. Three times he's fobbed me off with promises he'll deal with this and," his voice became a parody of a cultured English accent, "'those responsible will be punished.' Damned right they will be." His hands dropped to his belt and he began unbuckling it. "Damned right, you will."
"Hang on, Sir! Look, Sir, I'm a prefect..."
"Don't give me that garbage - you're an infant. Bloody well too young. You think I'm stupid, just because I didn't go to one of your snot factories?"
"No, Sir. I really am a prefect. I came onto your site -"
"I know you did - after your Headmaster promised me it wouldn't happen again." His belt was off now and he had folded it so he held both ends in his hands, the belt doubled over. He took a deep breath - and all the anger seemed to leave his body. "Take off your jacket, lad."
"Sir - please..."
"Take off your jacket, or I'll take it off you."
"I'll tell the police."
He laughed. "Sergeant Mullins - I know him, son. He won't help you."
I was in a bind - I knew Sergeant Mullins as well - and a couple of years previously in our only detailed conversations, he'd made it abundantly clear that he personally would relish the opportunity to give me a "'bloody good 'iding." Under the circumstances, I didn't really know if I could be confident of his total support - and besides any assistance would be somewhat after the fact. As for the school - technically speaking I was out of bounds. I was sure that the Headmaster would understand the reason for that - but explaining it would require telling on the two boys who I'd let go - and explaining why I had decided not to punish them... and again, it would be after the fact.
I slowly, very slowly, took off my slick, and placed it on the table.
"Put your hands on the wall."
I did so, and closed my eyes.
He gave me five hard cuts across my backside with his belt. They hurt - but I was used to the cane and I think that it hurt more. I didn't cry out - I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
"Now, you get out of here - and don't come back."
I grabbed my jacket, and my keys and handkerchief - my money was gone.
"I'm taking that to pay for a new lock. Now get out - and make sure your friends know that I'm not playing games anymore - I find any of them on my sites, I'll give them a bloody good belting - I don't care if they are a real bloody prefect. Stuck up little... just go."
I went - out the gate, and onto the road and heading back to school. It was raining heavily, but I didn't pause to put on my jacket. I just headed for the school. My buttocks were hurting, and my humour was probably as bad as the weather now. As soon as I was through the gates, I headed for my House - and into the junior common room.
"Hotham, Byrne. HERE NOW!"
Both of them were standing next to the dart board - and both scrambled to my call.
"Turn out your pockets."
They looked at each other - and both did so - small amounts of money, bits of paper, rubber bands - and in Anthony's pocket, a key.
"What's this key to?" Proper keys were actually rare in the House - so rare that my ring (which contained door keys for the House (I never used them, but I was entitled to have them), a key to the House safe (actually a large cupboard where boys could ask to have valuables stored, and a key to the school armoury (each CUO had one) were virtually badges of office. Each boy had a small lockable cupboard where they could keep their pocket money and perhaps their watch - but they had small keys that I could easily identify. This wasn't one of those.
Peter opened his mouth - then closed it. I leaned forward on him. "Don't you dare even think of lying to me, Byrne."
"It's to a shed, back on the site. I'm sor..."
"Both of you, come with me."
They trailed along behind me as we headed up to my room.
I entered my room, and took off my slick - I cast around trying to work out where to hang it - I should have left it downstairs on the verandah - but decided a wet bed didn't worry me at the moment, and threw it there.
From my wardrobe, I grabbed my cane and pulled out the chair from my desk into the middle of the room.
Anthony came in. He was doing his best to appear unconcerned, but I'm sure it was just a show.
"Put your hands on the seat and bend over."
He did so. I took up position behind him, lined the cane across the centreline of his bottom, raised it and brought it down sharply. He gasped and moved a little but not enough to spoil my aim, with the second stroke. And as I delivered the third stroke quickly, I noted his hands had moved to grip the end of the seat.
"Stand up." His face was red, and his eyes were glistening. "Wait outside."
He turned - and hesitated, and looked at me.
"Do you have something to say, Hotham?"
He stepped up to me, "Rysher... Peter hasn't been caned before."
"Go... Come in, Byrne."
Peter's eyes were wide and he was moving almost mechanically.
"Put your hands on the seat, and bend over. And stay down till I tell you to stand up again."
He complied - I stood behind him - and with my right arm, took aim - my left hand was held out, my hand hovering near his back, so if he tried to stand I could prevent him doing so. I slashed the cane down - two strokes, good ones, but not particularly hard in less than three seconds. He yelped.
"Stand up. That'll do."
He rose, as I put the cane down on my desk - and then I guided him outside where Anthony stood with his hands clutched to his backside.
"You two will take that key back and give it back."
"No please about it - you'll take the key back. And I warn you, the bloke who's there is in a mood to hand out beltings. You take that key back - and you tell him the Prefect he met earlier has sent you to return the key - you can also tell him you've already been punished, but I don't expect he'll care. Now go."
They headed downstairs. I returned to my room, and pushed my chair back. My own rump was still hurting - and I wondered if my near total immunity from the cane was making me soft. I picked up my slick intending to get it downstairs to dry - and out the window, I could see Anthony and Peter talking on the drive, casting glances back at the door. After a moment, they turned and began to walk towards the gates.
I caught them before they reached them. "Give me the key. I'll take it back. I don't want you two to miss lunch or Matron will skin me."
I did mean to return the key when I left. I really did. It seemed the right thing to do, and I was very interested in doing the right thing at this age. But when I passed the drain - I just couldn't resist. He had my money to buy a new lock with, after all. I didn't think I owed him anything else.
Back to the index.