I'm writing this account in response to an e-mail requesting details about something I mentioned in a previous post. I'm not exactly answering that question, because the incident that referred to is still too raw, even after so many years. I don't think this will be easy to write, and I don't know how it will turn out as it deals with something I wish had never happened. Most of my experiences, related previously, have broadly speaking been ones I regard in retrospect, fairly positively. Occasionally I've written about something that I can't regard in that way at all. This experience fits into a different category again - one of, I suppose ambivalence and mixed feelings. There are elements to it that are both negative and positive in my memory. I don't know how it will turn out, but I'll do my best to make it worth reading.
The incident took place in my Sixth Form year at school, when I was Captain of my House, and therefore a prefect. It was somewhere near the middle of the year, in winter, but the weather was fine. It was after school, mid afternoon. Now, my school was mostly a boarding school - but we did have a sizeable minority of day boys and to ensure that they were full members of the school, who didn't miss out on its critical experiences, the school took a rather unusual approach to day boys. Most of them didn't go home at the end of the school day. They stayed at the school for tea, and prep, only leaving at around 8 o'clock at night. In simple terms, they went home to sleep. Occasionally a boy would be picked up at the end of the regular school day, but this was frowned upon if it became a regular occurrence - it was considered very important that the day boys participate as much as possible in the life of the school.
Because this was done (and the parents of day boys had to pay for this privilege) it was considered important to have activities operating after school. The routine differed depending on the time of year. In winter, a couple of afternoons a week were taken up with sports training. On other afternoons, the activities that occurred were largely dependent on the weather. Basically there was ninety minutes that had to be filled in before tea (after tea came prep - homework in modern terms). There were various clubs - chess, science, photography that filled in time on wet days. On fine days, especially in winter they tried to keep us outside as much as possible.
This day was fine - cool but clear - and my Housemaster had decreed that this was the day that he would pay a debt to us all. A month or so earlier, he had made a rather rash promise and had said that if we won the House cross country competition he would swim 10 laps of the school pool in the dead of winter. We'd won - and this looked it was going to be the best weather he was going to get. The spectacle of seeing this rather austere, very strict gentleman slowly turn blue and die of hypothermia (we believed very much in optimism) was one that few wanted to miss - and about ten minutes before he was due to take the plunge, I did a final walk through the house checking everybody had gone. As House Captain, I felt it was my duty to ensure that he had a complete audience, and had used my authority to make attendance mandatory.
Nobody should have been in the House anyway at 4.20pm on a nice day like that, without a good reason so I didn't really expect to find anyone. But I heard a noise - a bang - coming from the junior dormitory area - and headed to investigate.
I encountered another sixth form boy, Roy Carey emerging from the second form dorm - somewhere he really had no reason to be.
Roy and I had been very good friends in First Form. He was probably my first friend at the school - and for about half the year, we'd been close to inseparable.
Now our school was fairly isolated and one consequence of this were that sweets of any sort were fairly hard to come by. We got a small amount of pocket money each week, and there was a tuck shop at the school, but being boys we tended to get our money on Saturday morning, spent it on Saturday morning, and all sweets had vanished by somewhere around 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. As you got older, you did tend to learn to budget better, and also became a bit less likely to blow it all on lollies, but in first form this was very much the pattern.
So back in First Form, one afternoon, after school, I came upon Roy with a bar of chocolate in the middle of the week, I was a little surprised. I asked him where he got it, and he told me he'd been giving it by one of the masters wives in exchange for running some sort of errand after school. I then demanded the traditional 'best friends share' and he broke me off a row.
It wasn't very nice - not to my taste at all. Looking back, I think it may have been dark chocolate and I was only used to milk chocolate. I don't think Roy liked it much either, but it was chocolate and therefore not to be discarded. He put what was left in his jacket pocket, and I forgot about it.
Later that evening, we were getting undressed for bed when the Matron came into our dormitory. Roy had thrown his blazer across the end of his bed, rather than hang it up and Matron picked it up to take it where it belonged. She looked in the pocket, and pulled out the chocolate.
"So, Roy, that's where the chocolate that disappeared from my desk this afternoon got to. You'd better come with me, hadn't you?"
Roy was in big trouble. Matron could use the cane, but with a First Form boy, it was far more likely that she'd simply spank him. But it wasn't impossible that he'd be sent to our Housemaster, or even the Headmaster for stealing and that certainly would have lead to a caning.
Roy hadn't been caned yet - as his best friend I knew that. And I know he was scared of it as well. But what it did next was inexcusable to me.
"I didn't take it - Nathan gave it to me."
I was stunned. This was low. Lying to escape punishment was one thing - lying in a way that could get your best friend punished wrongly - for that matter lying in a way that could get your worst enemy punished wrongly, just wasn't done.
Matron told us both to go with her. She took us down the hallway to her sitting room, and took us both inside.
"All right, which one of you did it?"
"Nathan did it!"
I looked at Roy standing next to me in his pyjamas, his eyes looking down at his feet refusing to meet my glance. For a moment I considered taking the blame. I thought it was likely that if he refused to confess we'd both be punished, and there seemed little point in two suffering rather than one. But in the end, I answered. "I didn't, Matron."
She looked at both of us, shook her head, and told us to go back to our dorm. As we walked back, Roy looked over at me.
After that incident, our friendship didn't recover. I didn't hate Roy. We got on well enough, and five years later our relation to each other was cordial and polite. But I was House Captain, and he was somewhere he wasn't meant to be on this occasion.
"What were you doing in the Second Form Dorm, Carey?"
"Just closing a window, Rysher - one of them must have left it open."
A window closing explained the sound I'd heard - and it was a reason for him to be in there. Though he had no formal authority, sixth form boys were expected to keep a look out around the House.
"Well, you'd better get down to the pool. Only a few minutes left."
"Yeah... are you coming?"
"After I check the common rooms."
He walked away and after one more quick check, I followed.
That evening after tea, as normal, we had prep. Junior boys had to head off to a classroom to do their work. Senior boys were trusted to work themselves in their rooms. I did what I needed to do, and eventually I heard the most junior boys returning to their dormitories, in preparation for the evening wind down, and after a minute there was a knock on my door.
I looked up and a First Form boy was standing there.
"Rysher, could you come to our dorm? There's a problem."
I followed him to his dormitory.
The junior dormitories were pretty simply furnished - bookcases were bolted to one wall, wardrobes to the other, with rows of beds between them. All the First Form boys were clustered around the wardrobe nearest the door - this didn't belong to anyone, but instead contained their small lockers. These were actually very small wooden cupboards, just big enough to hold a wallet and a watch really. They were locked with small keys that each boy had but the locks were pretty simple ones.
And all the cupboards had been sprung open.
I carried a notebook and I took it out and rapidly took account of what was missing. Fortunately it wasn't much. The only valuables boys typically had was whatever was left of their pocket money that week (which for First Form boys, typically wasn't much) and a wrist watch. Watches hadn't been taken - cash had. The boys reported a total of less than a dollar missing (which was more back then than it is today, but still wasn't an immense amount) and I reimbursed them out of my own pocket. I also told them that I thought someone from outside the house must have broken in - I didn't really think that, but the last thing I wanted in my house was boys suspecting other boys of theft. It's one of the worst things that can happen in a house.
I left the room and walked next door to the second form dormitory - the second form boys were just arriving from prep, and looked on curiously as I approached the first wardrobe and opened it.
The first three lockers had been sprung open. All the others were still closed. And I remembered Roy coming out of this room. I headed next door to the third form dormitory, and all the lockers were still closed. I headed back to the second form dormitory and waited until the boys whose lockers had been raided arrived, and determined what was missing. That cost me another 20 cents.
Then I went to see the Housemaster.
"Sir, I think we have a thief in the House."
"Oh dear. How sure are you?"
"It could have been an outsider, Sir. But it doesn't seem likely."
"What do you want to do about it? Do you think you can deal with it yourself? Or should I?"
It was a hard question, and I was glad he was giving me the choice. Theft was certainly serious - and if it was someone in the House, if it came to the Housemaster's official attention, the thief, if identified, would face a very real chance of expulsion. It was better in many ways if I could handle it. While the Housemaster had more disciplinary powers than I did, there were certain crimes that were best dealt with by schoolboy justice. As House Captain, I represented the meld between organized justice in the school, and the schoolboys own form. It was a meld that was fairly rarely that important - but in a case like this, it was important. Because if I caned a boy, I could do it on behalf of the other boys.
"I'd like to try and deal with it, Sir, if I may."
"All right - but if needed, I will step in."
I headed up to Roy's room which he shared with another sixth form boy, and asked him to come with me. He grabbed his jacket and we headed outside - I didn't want to discuss this in the House. We walked along in front of the buildings. It was dark, and cold.
"Carey, somebody robbed the First Form lockers - and started on the Second Form lockers sometime this afernoon?"
He was silent, and after a few seconds I continued.
"Do you know anything about it?"
In a quiet, calm voice, he replied. "Are you accusing me?"
"No... but you were in the second form dormitory."
"Yes, I know - I told you, I was closing the wardrobe."
I stopped. "You told me you were closing a window."
"Yes, I did, I meant the window."
I thought about where to take him. His mistake had left me thinking that he probably was the thief, and I knew that if this came out, he would be expelled. The Housemaster would leave to deal with a first, second, or third form thief - but if it emerged that the boy was senior - then he was gone. We weren't really friends but we had been. And I didn't want him expelled. And caning him in the House that evening would have attracted the attention of the Housemaster.
I took him to the only place I could - down behind the boilers, to a room from which the schools magazine was run. It was the only indoor place I had access to outside the House. And I told him to wait there, until I returned. I headed back to the House, and collected my cane from my room, and crept out of the House with it under my arm.
When I returned to the room, he was sitting in a chair reading a magazine he'd picked up. As I entered, he saw the cane and gave a very deep sigh.
"The solution to everything in this school, isn't it, Nathan?"
"Carey, did you steal from the first form lockers?"
"No, Nathan, I did not."
"You've stolen before."
"I remember and I'm not surprised you remember."
"This isn't about that."
"Then why bring it up?"
I thought about that. "Because if a boy steals once, he's more likely to steal again."
"Do you know anything about these thefts, Carey?"
He was silent.
"It's a simple question - do you know anything about the thefts?"
"I'm going to have to assume you're guilty, if you don't defend yourself. You won't give me a choice."
"Oh, we always have choices, Nathan."
"I am going to have to cane you."
"Do whatever you feel is necessary."
"I could report you to Mr. Pinner - or to the Headmaster."
He rose from his seat like a bullet. "Don't you dare!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Don't do that - you report me for stealing and I'll be expelled."
"Well, maybe you should be."
"No, Nathan. If you think you need to cane me, then cane me. But don't put me out of this school."
"Do you know anything about these thefts?"
No answer. I stood looking at him for a minute. He looked down at his feet. Then I spoke.
"Bring out the chair, and take off your jacket."
He did as I told him.
"Bend over and put your hands on the chair."
He did so, and I took aim right along the centerline of his backside. And I drew back and I carved through the air.
Six strokes - firm but not overly hard. He took them without a sound, and when it was over, he stood and picked up his jacket. I was shaking a bit. I was in worse condition than he was. And for some reason I wanted some reaction and he hadn't given me any.
"You could pay me back the money, Carey. I gave it back to the boys."
"Certainly, I'll pay. How much is it?"
"You know how much it is."
He looked at me and said very calmly. "I swear to you that I do not."
And then without waiting for a reply, he sharply turned away from me and walked away.
I returned to the House and eventually managed to fall asleep. I put the matter out of my mind, more or less over the next few days. It had been unpalatable, but necessary.
The following week, one lunchtime, we had a Prefects' Meeting. I arrived at the prefects room and saw that a chair was sitting outside with a white card on it. This indicated that the meeting was to have a disciplinary aspect - which wasn't that uncommon. With the exception of the School Captain and the five House Captains, prefects had no disciplinary powers of their own. They could only refer a boy to the Prefects' Meeting, where we would hold a trial and where the School Captain would administer any punishment. I checked the name on the card - Godfrey Lindon. The name meant nothing to me. I headed into the meeting.
An old chapel kneeler which served as a dock during our trials was in one corner of the room. A long wooden table surrounded by 18 chairs dominated the room, and all the Prefects sat down and our meeting began. Routine administrative matters started the meeting and it was at least fifteen minutes before we got to the disciplinary phase.
Godfrey, who had been sitting outside was told to come in. He was a smallish boy, aged about 13 or so, and now I recognized him as a day boy at the school. He was shown to the dock where he stood.
The School Captain began proceedings.
"Lindon, you've been summoned here to face charges. Do you give your word of honour to speak the truth in these proceedings?"
"Who brings the case?"
A Prefect, Ernest Gibbons, stood up, "If it pleases this meeting, I wish to refer Godfrey Lindon to this meeting's decision. There are several similar charges at issue, only one of which is presented as indicative. The charge is theft from dormitories. Is there any need for detail?"
I'd jerked up at the charge. "Yes, I'd like to ask some questions."
This was within my rights, but fairly unusual. The question as to need for detail, was really meant to be used in order to call an immediate vote for dismissal of charges, if a case seemed frivolous, and to allow for the Captain to ask if an offence was admitted.
The Captain spoke. "All right, Mister Rysher, you'll have your chance momentarily. Lindon, you've heard the charge - do you admit to the charge?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you wish to offer any statement in mitigation?"
"Mister Rysher, you have some questions?"
"If it pleases the meeting, I'd like to know how this offence was committed?"
"Point of Order!" Gibbons spoke up.
"What is the Point of Order?" the Captain asked, while looking at me, an eyebrow raised - I was going against the normal way the meeting worked and it wasn't the first time, and the last time it had happened, he'd given me a very stern warning to follow the rules in future.
Gibbons answered. "I'm concerned about what is going to happen to Lindon here. He's admitted the offence, and that should be the end of the matter. We don't normally go into details when a boy admits an offence. I just don't want him questioned in a way that increases his punishment."
"That's a valid Point of Order. Mister Rysher, is it your intention to ask questions that could increase this boys punishment?"
"No, it's not."
"Would you object if we voted and announced punishment prior to asking your questions?"
"No - actually, if Mister Gibbons would be willing to tell me what happened afterwards, I'd be happy with that."
"Is that all right with you, Mister Gibbons?"
"All right. Guilt is admitted and so is not at issue. All questions have been resolved. Would everybody please write the punishment they believe is deserved by Lindon for his infraction."
I filled out my slip "Abstaining for personal reasons" and passed it up. The Captain gathered all the slips and read them.
"Lindon, the assessed penalty of this meeting is that you receive four strokes of the cane. Do you wish to appeal to the Headmaster?"
"No." his voice was very subdued.
The Captain stood up and went to the cupboard to get the cane. The two prefects nearest the door, moved the dock into a more central location at the base of the table, so it could serve as our punishment block. I helped to pull the curtains closed and when I turned around, the Captain was standing next to the block.
"Bend over, Lindon."
He did so very slowly. As soon as he was in position, the Captain set his legs apart, raised his arm and then reached back so the cane was held right behind his body, and then lashed forward with it, his arm cracking straight at the end of his swing as the cane lashed across the seat of little Godfrey Lindon's shorts. Lindon gave a strangled scream. The second stroke was every bit as hard, but the third and fourth strokes were delivered with much less force.
"You can go. The meeting is closed. Gibbons, you'll need to witness the notes."
I grabbed Lindon's arm as he was leaving. "Wait outside, please, I may need to talk to you." He nodded, misery etched across his face.
While the Captain filled out the ledger, I asked Gibbons what had happened.
"I caught him the junior dorms in my House - he'd snuck in when he thought nobody was around. He was using a pocket knife to spring the lockers open and nicking any cash he found inside."
"Nothing that can be fixed. Thanks, Ernie."
I stepped outside. Lindon was standing there rubbing his bottom, and wiping his face on his sleeve. I pulled out my handkerchief and handed it to him.
"Godfrey, I need an honest answer from you - I swear you won't get in any more trouble for answering, but I need to know. Did you break into lockers in my House as well?"
He nodded. "A sixth form boy caught me. He told me that I shouldn't do that, and he said he wouldn't tell, if I promised not to do it again. He told me that stealing wasn't worth the guilt and he gave me a dollar. And then you came and I hid behind a bed, and he said he'd shut a window, and you both walked off. I snuck out after that."
"Was this before or after, Gibbons had caught you?"
"After. I haven't done it since." He rubbed his backside again, "And I really won't."
"All right - off you go then."
I headed off to class in a daze, and spent the rest of the school day sweating on what had happened. I felt awful, and immediately at the end of the school day, I sought out Roy Carey - he was in the change rooms getting ready for training.
"Carey, I owe you an apology."
"Really? Whatever for?"
"You were innocent. I know that now. I shouldn't have caned you. I'm sorry."
"I accept your apology."
"If you want to go to the Headmaster and complain, I'll go with you and I'll take any-"
"Nathan, I accept your apology."
"Maybe you do, but that doesn't mean you can't complain."
"There's no maybe about it. I accept it. And I've got no complaint. But, I do have a request."
"I've accepted your apology. Please accept mine. I offered it once. And you never did."
"That was five years ago."
"And you still remember. And so do I. Nathan, I made a big mistake in First Form. You made one the other day. Well, can't we make something good out of our mistakes, seeing we made them? Let them cancel each other out?" He stood up and held out his hand. I took it.
"Mean it, Nathan."
"I accept your apology, Roy."
He walked out.
I sat down on a bench and began to unlace my school shoes so I could change for sports. I was happy, I realised. I felt really good. And then my mood suddenly changed.
I remembered back to the start of the year, when I'd been appointed House Captain, and I remembered sitting in the Headmasters study as he'd told us what was expected of us.
"As prefects, you are exempt from normal corporal punishment - the only people with the power to administer corporal punishment over you are myself, your House Masters, and the Matron. This has rarely proven necessary in the past - but please understand that if I find you have used the cane carelessly, I will begin by doubling whatever you've inflicted - honest mistakes are one thing - though do try and avoid them - but you should never cane without a good reason. My door is always open to you. If you have any questions, come and see me. If you make a mistake - come and see me."
If you make a mistake - come and see me.
I'd made a big mistake - and the fact that Roy wasn't going to make an issue of it, didn't change that at all. I'd given him six strokes - and while the idea of double that, twelve, filled me with a sickening dread, I could take it - besides if it came to that, I suspected I'd get six strokes as a flogging rather than twelve, and I'd had that twice before and survived. My real fear was of being stripped of my Captaincy.
I laced up my shoes and headed back to the main school, and to the Headmasters' Study. I knocked on the door.
I walked in. The Headmaster was sitting behind his desk working.
"Yes, Nathan, may I help you?"
"Sir, I caned a boy I shouldn't have."
"Sit down, and tell me what happened. The clear unvarnished truth."
I did so. At the end, he leaned forward in his chair.
"Nathan. Did you honestly believe that Carey was guilty at the time you caned him?"
I turned my head away from his gaze.
"Nathan, look at me when you speak."
"I think I did, Sir."
"You think you did?"
"I wasn't absolutely certain, Sir. But yes, I was as close to certain as I think I could be."
"Did the history between you affect your decision to cane him?"
"Yes, Sir, it did."
"In what way?"
"I knew he'd stolen in the past."
"Nathan, I'm going to ask you a very serious question. Are you afraid at the moment?"
"What are you afraid of?"
"Well, Sir - you said if we caned carelessly, you'd double whatever we gave. I am afraid of that."
"As you should be. But what are you most afraid of?"
"Losing my Captaincy and my prefecture."
"And again, you should be... but no, I'm not going to punish you. If you don't deserve it, that would be unjustified. And if you deserve it, it would be too easy."
"But for the future - just feel the fear - that's all I ask - feel the fear of the cane before you use it. Now go."
I took his advice as much as I could. Unfortunately there would be one more incident before the end of the year, where I would again cane a boy by mistake. But I'm not sure I'll ever be able to write that down.
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