The story begins when I was in Second Form. One lunchtime, I needed to make use of the schools less publicized, though very essential facilities. I needed to use the toilet. Now, the school's conveniences were not exactly its best feature - not something they spent a great deal of money on. They were functional, and that was all. A set of cubicles with doors that could not be locked (and apparently even these doors were a fairly new innovation), a common urinal, and a row of sinks. In the boarding house, we had better facilities, but they weren't available for use during the normal school day. This wasn't the type of place most people would spend more than the minimum amount of time in. There was an exception. As in many schools, this was a place for the smokers to go. Groups of diehards used to hang out in the dunnies and act tough, by smoking a cigarette (they weren't that easy to get at our school, so it was rare they were able to get enough to smoke regularly) and then stand around while their friends smoked a cigarette. Someone would stand at the door watching for Masters or Prefects (both of whom had no real reason to use these facilities - they had their own) and if they were seen approaching, everything was ditched and flushed.
During this lunchtime I entered the toilets and the smoke was actually pretty noticeably bad. Thinking about it, this was not that long before I earned by only public beating, and the cigarette racket that gone me into trouble on that occasion may have already been operating - there was certainly a lot more smoke around than was normal. I did what I came in to do and headed for the door - and suddenly there was a lot of shouting and swearing as the Captains came bursting in.
"Against the wall! All of you!" Those of us who were in clear sight complied either immediately, or after making futile attempts to dispose of evidence. Two of the senior boys watched over us while the others walked along pushing open the door of every cubicle, collecting anyone they found. Once they had us all lined up, the Captain of the School, Harry Kell, issued orders.
"Boarders, go with your House Captain. Day boys come with me."
I trotted after my House Captain along with two other boys - both Fifth Formers, both of whom I knew had been smoking. We headed into the House, and upstairs to the Captain's room on the first floor.
He strode into his room, and about a second later, called out: "Blackwood."
Blackwood walked into the room and shut the door. Less than five seconds after he'd entered the room, the cane began falling. Four strokes - and five seconds after that the door opened and he came out looking totally unaffected.
The other fifth former entered pulling the door shut. Same routine - within only a few seconds I could hear the cane striking. At this point, I was very glad that I'd relieved myself less than five minutes before. He got four as well, and was grimacing as he left.
I walked in and pulled the door shut behind me. The Captain pointed at the end of his bed. "Bend over, hands on the bed."
"I wasn't smoking."
"'Any boy caught smoking, or in the presence of those smoking, or in possession of tobacco, will be caned.'" Very few of our school rules were actually written down - just a few relating to alcohol, smoking, the bounds of the school, and 'self-abuse'. But this one was, and everybody knew it. "Were you in the presence of people smoking?"
"Well, yes, but I didn't have much choice!"
"Rules don't say anything about choice."
"Bend over unless you want to see the Headmaster."
I bent over. It turned out to be just one stroke - and not a very hard one at all. But it annoyed me a bit. I was developing a view of the school at this time that it was fundamentally a pretty fair and a just place. And this didn't fit into that view very well. But it wasn't a big issue, and memory faded.
Until I was in the sixth form, and I was Captain of my House.
Middle of winter - raining heavily. I was coming around one of the sports fields on my way from the rifle range. I was in my cadet uniform, and was making a real game of trying to approach the main school completely unobserved (Come on, I might have been a mighty sixth former and a House Captain, but I was only 15, I still played when I had the chance!) Not that anyone was likely to be looking, but it was a lot more fun than walking.
I ducked across the road to the corner of the chapel and saw someone. I ducked down so he wouldn't see me... and realised this first form boy was from my house and was behaving rather furtively. Given the time of day he should have been in class. Suspicions aroused, I watched him approach the corner of the library and adjust his clothing - and I realised he was peeing against the wall.
I was STUNNED. Where he was was just on the edge of the school's war memorial and I was thinking very militarily. This was during Vietnam - and the only thing that made sense to me was that this boy was somehow making some sort of anti-military protest. I charged up behind him and as I got close was screaming, "WHAT IN THE NAME OF CHRIST ARE YOU DOING?!?" He jumped - and really, this is not the time you want to be disturbed. He span around with a look of absolute horror on his face. I was enraged - I almost decked him but I managed to control myself and grabbed him by the shoulder as hard as I could and slammed him against the wall. Then I dragged him back and propelled him across the front of the school buildings towards our house, as he tried to do up his trousers. I wasn't sure whether I was going to cane him myself or take him straight to the Headmaster.
I decided to take him to my study just in case there was some rational explanation for what he had done. I lessened the pressure I had on his shoulder, and slowed down slightly, and took him into the House and to my study. When we arrived, I made him wait outside, while I went in and took out my cane, placing it where he would be able to see it.
He came in and his eyes locked onto the cane instantly.
"Right, Wiley - what the hell were you doing, pissing on the War Memorial?"
"What? I wasn't! Oh, fu... hell. I didn't think of that. It's just a corner. I didn't think where it was. I swear, Nathan! I swear!"
The look of shock and embarrassment on his face was intense. He'd been pale when he'd entered the room. But his face coloured rapidly and he started to pull off his blazer, apparently resigned to a caning.
I liked Terry Wiley. He was a very nice kid and he wasn't a troublemaker. I hadn't had to deal with him before, and I talked to him a bit more than most first formers as I'd seen him in the library browsing the Biggles books one afternoon after the start of the year and I also enjoyed them (when I left the school at the end of the year, putting away childish things, I gave him all of my Biggles books (over fifty of them) - it's taken me years to rebuild my collection).
I held up a hand. "Hang on. Why were you outside in the rain taking a leak? You've been here six months, you must have found the dunnies by now." I was trying to lighten the mood a bit. I believed he hadn't done what I thought I'd been doing and I'd been quite a bit rougher with him than I had any right to be.
"I'd rather not tell you."
"I think you'd better." He was hesitant. "Listen, you can tell me, or you can tell the House Master, or you can tell the Matron - but something odd is going on here, and I can't let it go. If you prefer to tell Matron or a Master, that's OK - but I'm not letting you leave until you tell me, or you tell me who you want to talk to. I can't just ignore this - it seems too odd."
"All right... I can't use the toilets at the moment."
"Because they are full of smoke all the time, and it makes me feel sick, and some of the older boys..." he trailed off.
"I can't say."
"Terry - you have to."
"No, I won't. If you need a reason, it's the cigarette smoke."
"Are you being bullied?"
"I'm not asking you who is doing it. Just is it happening?"
"Who's doing it?"
"You said you wouldn't ask!"
"I said I wasn't asking - then. I am now."
"I won't say."
"No. I can't tell. You know that."
"Are you scared of them?"
"Yes, but that's not the point. I can't dob. I won't dob."
"All right. I won't make you."
I gestured at the cane. "I bet I could. But I won't. If you want to come and tell me, you can. But I won't make you dob. But I intend to find out. Look - for now, come into the House and use the toilets here when you need to. If anyone queries it, refer them to me. And don't tell anyone that you've told me about the smoking - nobody. Or I will cane you. Understood?"
"Get back to class - tell the Master you had to see me."
He left - and I quickly changed into my regular school uniform and headed to my English class - the School Captain and two of my fellow House Captains were in that class with me and I slipped them notes saying I had an urgent matter to raise at the start of lunch. Rather amusing in retrospect - four of the most senior boys in the school communicating by passing surreptitious notes around a classroom like naughty schoolboys - but our English Master wasn't the type of man you risked getting in trouble with - he couldn't cane us, as Prefects, but he was frightening enough, that he didn't need to.
At lunch, we dropped notes on the other Captains and after we'd eaten, we headed up to the School Captain's room. We all crammed in, and I was given the floor.
"I want to hit the toilets. Go in like commandos, grab all the boys in there and cane them all for smoking."
The School Captain spoke us. "I presume we should only actually cane them for smoking, if we actually catch them smoking?"
"Smoking, or in the presence of, or in the possession of."
One of my fellow House Captains spoke. "Jesus. What's brought this on?"
"I've been told there's a lot of smoking going on in there. And probably some bullying as well, by the smokers. Junior boys are starting to get scared of going in there. We've got to knock it off, now."
Everybody looked at the School Captain - ultimately it was his choice. "Well, it might be useful to assert our authority a bit. But we do it my way. Standard whack, everybody, is form at most. And people can choose to see the meeting if they want to. Agreed."
No response from anyone.
We moved through the buildings, out of bounds to most at lunchtime, and took up position near a door less than 20 yards from the toilet entrance. We stood in a nearby room and waited watching through a window. We could see out - nobody could see in. We saw boys head into the toilets and we watched them come out. Many seemed to be staying in there. After about three or four minutes, a sixth form boy - a reliable one - went in and came out a minute later. One of us headed down the hall and out another door, intercepting him. Then came back and confirmed that there were boys smoking in there.
We waited as the captain stood there looking at his watch and at the door. He wanted to wait until everybody in the toilet had spent four minutes in there - on the principle that if they were in there for that long, we probably wouldn't catch any innocents. It took about twenty minutes - but then he yelled "GO!"
And we went - out the door, across the yard, and through the other door - I stood at the door guarding it, while others searched the cubicles. The place reeked of cigarette smoke - and possibly, looking back on it, other substances as well - but I was rather na´ve at that stage.
In short order we had everybody lined up and divided by Houses. From my House, we'd collared four - a sixth form boy, Rodney Tynes, a pair of third formers, Bill Beckley and Chris Close, and a first form boy, Ray Meecham.
When we arrived at my study, Tynes spoke up. "Me first, Rysher. I need to talk to you."
"All right, you come in - the rest of you line up."
We headed into my small room. Rodney Tynes was older than me, naturally (I was the youngest in the Sixth Form) and was a fairly prominent figure in the House. He was actually one of the boys I relied on a lot - generally very responsible, and very dedicated to the House. I certainly was going to do him the courtesy of listening to what he had to say. I assumed he was going to try and persuade me not to cane him, so as soon as we'd entered, I set out the situation for him as I saw it.
"Look, Rodney - you have a choice, me or you can see the Prefect's Meeting. If you go to meeting, I'm sure that we can come up with some other way of dealing with this."
"Not an issue, Nathan. I'll take the caning - you caught me, no question. It's the rains fault - I wouldn't normally have gone in. It's not me that's the problem - I just don't want you to cane Ray Meecham."
"No choice. He was in there - he must have been in there, more than twenty minutes. We were watching."
"Yeah... well, he was. Damn. Nathan - some of the chaps wouldn't let him go. They had him on guard duty, acting as a look out."
"I'm not sure exactly. Seriously, I'm not. I don't normally go in. It would have been one of the seniors - and I guess the rest of us let it happen. But it didn't happen in front of me. I just know it had happened. You can't cane him. It wouldn't be right."
I sat down on the end of my bed. "I don't see how I can avoid it. Look - he was lookout, and he wasn't really effective, was he? If I don't cane him, he's likely to get the living daylights beaten out of him. People will think it's a setup."
"Well, that's up to you. But seriously, Nathan - I think the kid has been bullied into it. I let it happen, I guess - I worked out what was going on, and just let it go on. If you cane him - well, I think you wind up a part of it, as well. I've said my piece. Can we get this over with?"
"All right." I stood up, moved the chair into the middle of the room, and took up my cane. Rodney took off his blazer and bent over, and I delivered three good hard strokes in the required fashion. He took it without a sound. Stood up, and pulled his blazer on.
"You're pretty good at that."
"Get out and send in Beckley."
Beckley came in with a rather sullen expression on his face. He was a bit of a hard case by the standards of our school, and tended to cop the cane a lot.
"Prefects Meeting or you can take it from me."
"You'll find out."
"Fair go! Close will know. I should know too."
He wasn't wearing a jacket. He bent over and I slammed him. Three strokes as hard as I could, in the hope of breaking him down. It didn't work although I think four might have got him.
Chris came in - Beckley's follower. Not the troublemaker his friend was, but easily lead. Tended to do whatever Bill told him.
"Prefects Meeting or three here and now."
He bent over and I caned him. Again, three hard strokes, and in his case, I had him crying at the end of it.
Ray came in. Very scared looking. He was only a little boy - 12, but small for 12. And I didn't have a clue how to deal with him. I pointed at the chair.
"Sit down, Ray."
This is why boys shouldn't have had the right to cane. I had a dilemma that I wasn't really equipped to deal with. I looked for an out.
"Ray - do you know the rules on smoking?"
"Yes, Rysher. Any boy caught smoking or with boys who are smoking or with cigarettes gets the cane."
Unfortunately, he did know the rule - while ignorance was officially no excuse, I could have stretched a point. Now I was in the situation where he was undoubtedly aware of the rule, and he had violated it. I really was in a bind. I had responsibilities to the school, to my position as a prefect, to Ray. I knew if I didn't cane him, and anyone found out, he was likely to find himself bashed up for not being an effective lookout - or even worse, if the bullies thought he'd given names to get away, he'd be marked as a dobber, and he didn't need that. I didn't want to cane him. But I wasn't really seeing much choice.
"You have a choice, Meecham. You can see the Prefect's Meeting or I can cane you now." I was hoping he'd choose the meeting and get me off the hook - but I was also aware that if he did choose the meeting, I'd have no control over the punishment he'd receive and he'd probably get something fairly severe. I felt pretty rotten to be honest - that I was hoping he'd choose a choice that would wind up worse for him, because it would dilute my responsibility.
He looked terrified, but he spoke in a steady voice. "I'll take the cane from you."
"Very well. Stand up and bend over."
He did as he was told, and I took up my cane. "Ray - is there anything you want to tell me?"
I hit him. One stroke only, and not that hard.
I watched him walk out and then I closed the door. I put the cane away.
We shouldn't have had the power. I shouldn't have, certainly.
I just wasn't ready for it.
I tried to use it wisely. And I think mostly I did. But when I didn't - well, it stayed with me.
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