Abomination at St Margaret’s.
There is a collective wince among the students at St Margaret Clitheroe’s Finishing School for Young Ladies as another crack of the cane against tender flesh elicits a further wail of anguish to echo around the austere walls of the school gymnasium. The caning is fearful, delivered with all the strength of Miss Pearson’s strong right arm. She is one of the few lay teachers at the school amidst the nuns; our gymnastics teacher and official executioner for public chastisement. A caning from her is one to be feared and she is laying the cane down with all the authority of her office and with all the confirmation of her reputation. She is lifting the cane high above her shoulder. The report of it across the naked buttocks and thighs is loud and sharp; the screams of anguish that result are ear piercing.
It is a familiar scene in the school gymnasium whenever a crime is so heinous as to warrant making an example of the sinner in front of the assembled upper school. The students are lined against one wall beside the wall bars; the S****rs of the teaching staff occupy the opposite wall and Father Ignatius mumbles prayers to himself alone. All eyes are fixed upon the tableau at the centre of the gym where the victim is tied down naked over the venerable old vaulting horse while Miss Pearson flogs her rear with a long length of cane. In most respects it is an all too familiar scene. On this occasion however there are some differences.
One difference for which I might be thankful is that, for once, it is not myself tied down over the horse. That in itself is remarkable and especially so considering the assorted sins of my own waiting to catch up with me. Although we have only been back at school a few days there are enough blots on my copybook to cause S****r Juliana to shake her head sadly in disappointment and for S****r Bernadette to declare that a leopard never changes its spots. The honeymoon that I enjoyed as a result of my heroics in the Convent fire over the Christmas break is starting to wear thin and S****r Juliana is already considering a return to a policy of regular chastisement.
There are other issues as well. It is surely only a matter of time before S****r Maria, our slow witted Divinity teacher, discovers the source of the foul smell in her classroom and traces its origins back to me. Furthermore, only this afternoon, Father Ignatius told me that he expected to hear my confession in the next day or two and hinted strongly that he was sure that I had some terrible sin to confess; a sin doubtless connected with the crate of Tullamore Dew Malt whisky that vanished from his office on the night of the fire. Father Ignatius is a great believer in the soul cleansing power of penance and the mortification of the flesh. It won’t be a few Hail Marys he’ll be expecting of me should he ever get to the bottom of that particular outrage!
Nevertheless, today, it is not myself suffering the ministrations of Miss Pearson’s cane. No today it is poor Alice Coleman tied over the horse and she is taking her caning badly. She has received scarce a third of the allotted fifty strokes of the cane deemed the penance for her sinfulness yet her shrieks of agony have reached an almost manic pitch and her pitiful sobs and pleas would melt the heart; would melt the heart of anyone but the implacable Miss Pearson that is. Poor Alice’s pathetic implorations for mercy seem merely to irritate her and spur her on to greater effort. The cane is a blur as it whistles through the air to slice into the soft flesh of the back of Alice’s thighs. She howls dementedly, straining against her bonds and throwing her head from side to side; her blond curls tossing wildly in her agony.
There is another awful swipe of that cane and Alice’s screams reach an even more frenzied pitch. A shudder passes through the ranks of the watching students. And that too is an unusual feature of this caning. Normally, a good caning is a diverting spectacle in the mundane routine of St Margaret Clitheroe’s; a welcome distraction and much enjoyed. Alice Coleman is a very pretty girl and the sight of her stripped naked and tied down over the vaulting horse to be caned would be a most entertaining and stimulating performance. Normally the eyes of the students would be shining and their cheeks suffused with arousal as they moistened their lips with their tongues. There might have been the hint of girls squeezing their thighs together or reaching out to covertly fondle each other as excitement gripped them. The caning would inflame passions and later, in the dormitories, those passions would find consummation in sinful embraces. But not today.
Today the mood is different. Today the students are watching the spectacle in sullen, fearful silence; their faces grim and sympathetic. Every shriek of anguish from the tormented girl cuts like a knife through the watching students. Our Head Teacher, S****r Claire had thought to make an example with the caning. It is certainly doing that but the example is turning in dangerous directions. There is a hint that fearfulness is turning inexorably toward resentment with each wailing scream from the beaten girl and that resentment in its turn progressing toward rebellion.
Nobody is watching the caning with more trepidation than little Violet Jameson. There is a ready explanation for this. Violet is stood in her vest and knickers a little behind Miss Pearson. When Alice’s caning is concluded it will be Violet’s turn to mount the vaulting horse and receive the cane. Violet is a pretty little dark haired girl; rather shy and timid. She’s the sort of girl who would wish no harm on anybody yet here she is about to face fifty strokes of that awful cane. Her face is pinched and white with terror as she watches Alice writhe in wailing agony under the cane. She is crying even before her own caning has begun. She has both her hands clutched to her crutch. It is too late it seems. There is a puddle on the parquet floor of the gymnasium where she is standing. I fear she has wet herself in her terror.
It is Violet’s presence that explains the reason for this public caning. Both Alice and Violet are quiet unassuming girls who make no enemies and rarely have any cause for the S****r’s disapproval of their conduct. Their only crime, if crime it be, is their devotion to each other. It is a devotion that extends beyond platonic endearment. They were caught, caught red-handed, in each others’ arms, naked and performing acts which the S****rs of the Holy Convent find impossible to overlook; sins of the flesh; abomination in the eyes of God. S****r Claire has decided that an example be made of them.
And therein lies the problem. S****r Claire seems determined to underline her strong disapproval of this abominable sin and to demonstrate clearly the penalty for it. Well if that is her intention she might just as well march virtually the entire school in here and beat them! From where I am standing among my fellow students I am at a loss to pick out a single girl of whom I can honestly say that they don’t have that particular sin on the conscience. Next to me is Debra Wilson; long brunette hair and desperately in love with Janet Hardcastle in the year below. Then there’re Pauline Richmond and Wendy Newton who are so firmly fixed together that if you see one you automatically look around for the other. I spy the gorgeous Rachel Harrison who has broken half the hearts in the upper school and Zara Walton who spends her time mooning over Teresa Ramirez when she’s not falling back on her ex girlfriend in solace. There’s saucy little Betty O’ Hara whose misdemeanours are notorious and would cause s****r Claire to have her thrashed within an inch of her life were she aware of the half of them. The whole school is a hotbed of romances and associated drama. Even the head girl is in a ménage a trois with her two stooges! I myself have my beloved little Jacqueline even though I fear I sometimes am less than faithful to her.
So it is, therefore, that every piercing scream of pain from the girl over the vaulting horse sends a wave of fear and resentment through the assembled student body. Nobody is safe now. There is scarce a girl present who cannot look at Alice shrieking her pretty little head off as the cane leaves yet another crimson streak across her tortured buttocks and think “there but for the Grace of God go I”. Yet it is, if we are to believe S****r Claire, the Grace of God which so ordains the punishment we are witnessing.
I look over to the line of nuns against the far wall and my eyes narrow. During my incarceration in the convent in the Christmas break I saw enough to convince me that this abomination is by no means confined to the student body. There are things going on behind those cloistered walls every bit as sinful as the acts for which the two girls before us are being caned. I look at S****r Juliana. She is standing sombrely with her eyes lowered but I know she is stealing glances at Alice over the vaulting horse. Her face is bright pink. I recognise that blush to her cheeks. It is the same flush of arousal she shows when punishing me; the same flush that she showed when I shared her cell in the convent. She for one can surely find no moral satisfaction that she is above the sin for which these girls are being caned. I will remind her of it when we are next alone!
I shake my head in disgust. Hypocrites! All of them! They rail against the abomination of a girl’s passion for another but that is not the end of their outrage. It is not as if they exclusively abhor sex between two girls. Any sexual contact is anathema to them; they who have locked themselves in self denial of their sexuality behind their convent walls. Jessica Brawton after all was caned in this very gymnasium after being caught with the caretaker’s son behind the sports pavilion. Even making love to yourself is abhorrent in their sexless world of prayer and penance. Being caught masturbating is punished with the martinet at St Margaret’s; applied to epicentre of that secret pleasure. They hate all sex; the more so the more they suppress it in themselves. They have emasculated their God and laden the greatest human gift with two thousand years of guilt.
Poor Alice is nearing the end of her caning now. She has ceased to struggle and now lies limply over the vaulting horse sobbing piteously as the final strokes are applied. Little Violet’s turn will come soon. I see she is mumbling to herself. Perhaps she is praying. I glance around and see some of the girls have clutched their girlfriends’ hands. I wonder if the S****rs will see it and if so how they will interpret it. There is still an air of fear in the gymnasium but it is slowly being replaced. The mood is turning ugly. I sense a hint of rebellion in the air.