Thwack … thwack… thwack … thwack … thwack … thwack … Six of the best. Forty teen boys were being caned at our state-run high school in West London. A boy at the back of the class had let out an audible fart and, when called to confess by the schoolmaster, he stayed quiet. A “mass execution,” the punishment of the whole class for an infraction of one boy, followed.
In the Britain of 1954, caning was as common as dirt. I cannot remember the first time I felt the cane or for what reason, but certainly before age seven. Child and parent alike accepted thrashing as a routine but integral part of schooling. Complaining did not help and, more often than not, led to further punishment. Fear that we might, at any moment, commit an offence without meaning to, caused a constant sense of apprehension to prevail at school.
But my most painful memory is from my junior school when, at age eight, I witnessed the punishment of a classmate. We all had to be on our guard, but Andrew Felsen, a slim, tow-headed lad from the slums, seemed to continually breach the teachers’ arbitrary and ever-changing standards. Soon teachers used him as the worst example of compliance in our class. So, when he raised his hand in class begging to use the bathroom urgently, Mr. Maclean, refused him. A few minutes later, the boy asked again. The master refused a second time and, wagging his finger, said “Control yourself, class ends in twenty minutes.”
After just a few minutes, the smell of shit wafted to the front of the classroom. Maclean did not need Holmesian powers of deduction to determine what had passed.
“Felsen! Come to the front of the classroom.” Already edgy from simply being in school, my jaw tightened and my muscles tensed further.
Andrew, reluctant and taut with effort, walked down the tiered steps of the classroom. Once his foot reached the level floor, he bolted for the door, shouted “Bastard!” and dodged through the doorway and into the hall. The master’s long stride exceeded his in a few paces and Andrew was snapped up.
The boy, dragged in by his ear, screamed and shouted a string of four letter words. I had never seen a boy so reckless or an adult move so fast. I trembled for him and felt the whole class lean forward, silent in gruesome fascination. Maclean, in one fluid movement, swept up his thin bamboo cane and threw Felsen on to the oaken expanse of his desk.
Holding his victim by his scrawny neck, face down, his blonde mop hanging over the end of the desk, the master brought down stroke after nauseating stroke until his cane wore to a shredded stump. He ceased, sweaty and panting and pulling the sagging Felsen up by his collar marched him back to his seat. All the cockiness gone, face puffy and red, running with tears and snot, brown-smeared thighs crossed with red welts. He finished the class sitting in his own excrement. Our master continued the lesson, calm as a guest at an Eton boating party. When the bell broke in from the hallway, signaling class dismissed, I realized that I had heard nothing.
Felsen had screamed throughout his punishment, pausing only for breath, but no adult came to the classroom. No parents came in to protest. I had watched it all hypnotized by the horror, as ancient Romans at the games were said to do. I quivered at each stroke as if it were mine, but felt glad, yes glad, that he was at the end of Maclean’s stick, not me. I thought that my fellow pupil deserved the savagery for his ill-judged disobedience. It took a half a lifetime before I understood his seemingly foolish defiance and the injustice.
The cane leaves bloody stripes, but its mark and sting fade within a day or two. Not so with memory. Not so with my recurring dream of redress. It still comes willy-nilly even in my old age.
* * * * *
It’s bright daylight as I walk along a broad boulevard in a charmless utilitarian city. No anchor in time or place; devoid of people, cars, movement — as if some alien craft had passed over, sucking out all life. The street, the buildings seem to go on forever, converging at some far distant point. I stroll by reading the signs above empty shops and businesses, but within seconds cannot recall what I read, as if I were senile.
A group of men break the quiet, turn into the boulevard some distance ahead, and walk in my direction. They seem younger than I, in their thirties perhaps, dressed quite smartly in jacket and tie like school masters. They talk among themselves and, though far off, I see they carry canes or walking sticks. I think little of it, noting only that few people carry such accessories today.
They appear to wave their sticks in my direction and, as they come nearer, I think I hear my name, “Krazner,” whispering in the still air.
My eyes stay on them as the distance between us closes. Their clothes, accoutrements, and features become more distinct as though a veil is lifted. One, walking slightly ahead of the others, has red hair, which in an odd way, matches his rust-colored tweed jacket. A second, has grey hair, is portly and wears a dark suit. The sun reflects back the bald head of a third. Another wears a scarlet waistcoat and has a jacket draped over his beefy forearm. There are five of them.
Their animated chatter dies down and I fancy they walk with a more determined stride. Now they exchange only a word or two, as men do when they find a common but disreputable purpose. Their shoulders appear to broaden as they march to a drumbeat unheard by, me quickening their pace, hurrying toward me. My own pace remains steady, even as I recognize them as teachers from my school years. Some brandish their canes others grasp them by the ends, testing their flex. With only twenty paces between us, the gaunt features of Maclean, our house master and Felsen’s nemesis, come into focus. Any boy who failed to master the basics of arithmetic quickly felt the stroke of his cane. He holds his chief teaching aid between his hands and grins revealing tobacco-stained teeth.
“Krazner,” he calls “come to the front of the class.”
At this the men around him laugh, puff themselves up, swagger more and soon I recognize each of them. Mr. Banner in his suit of grey, grey like the fringe of hair around his balding head, whose prosaic manner masks a vicious and spiteful bent; Mr. Fleischer in the waistcoat, red like his face, with a temper to match; Mr. Kurst, a little man with no love in him known to us boys as Basher. The jagged scar on his face rumored to be from a bottle fight in Hamburg; “Daddy” Eastern so called for his greying hair and saintly smile. Parents think him such a “nice” man. I too thought him gracious to offer me the choice between a humiliating public flogging and the same medicine in the cozy privacy of his office. Another unrestrained flogger stood nearby; I recognized but could not name him. All began to tap their canes in the palm of their hands. The torturers of my generation, paid to beat us boys for trumped-up, unfathomable reasons.
We come to a halt about three paces apart. A strange mix of nonchalance and revulsion brewed inside me. I step forward.
“Go fuck yourself, Maclean,” I say without hesitation or fear. “Take one more step and I’ll take that cane and shove it so far up your ass, it’ll come out the top of your head.”
The words echo in my ears as if I am a proxy for someone not actually there. They stand quite still shifting their feet a little — abashed like sullen boys — looking about as if one among them had let out a loud fart in mid-sermon. Banner and Kurst lower their canes and lean on them as if tired from the long walk.
“You too Kurst, you sonofabitch,” I say, feeling like a bantam newly in the ring, “or any of you scumbags. First one comes close, I’ll break his fucking neck and feed what’s left of him to my goldfish.”
I step forward. They hesitate, back up and look about like animals waiting at a barred gate. I
grab at the Scottish plaid tie around Maclean’s neck and pull him to me. I move my head aside as I catch his fetid breath. His arms dangle, as if he’d lost the strength to raise them. Close up, I see that he is older than I first thought. With my head already cocked, I step on his toes and head-butt him. A loud crack follows. He drops his cane and, leaning to one side, catches the blood streaming from his nose in his cupped hands. He staggers and falls to his knees.
I feel wired to a giant generator and grab at one of the others, Fleischer I think, and smash my fist into his face. Again something cracks, but I don’t wait to see what. I move, with cold precision, into their midst smashing, crashing, kicking, and beating until only one remains standing. No one pleads or attempts to restrain me. I take this as admission of their guilt — qui tacet consentit, silence is assent — comes to me from my Latin studies. Their rout could not have taken more than a few minutes, but I feel like I have defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Only one remains on his feet, a ghost of a man whose bitterness had rained on me and my peers many times. I grab this anonymous thing by the shoulder and force him to his knees. He makes soft choking sounds and appears more shriveled than a few minutes before. “Now,” I say, “on behalf of all these sadistic sons of bitches, you can lick my boots.” I push down on the back of his neck forcing his face within inches of my toe. He does as I bid him, as I knew he would.
I look from one to the next. They are downed, kneeling, lying, and soundless. I let out a loud bellow of a laugh at their disarray. Rising to his knees, the boot licker turns a sad, slack-jawed face toward me. It’s brown and wrinkled like a walnut, his shoulders stooped, and head drooping. His arms hang down, like Maclean’s, as if a soft breeze could set them flapping.
Now unrecognizable as the rowdies who first confronted me, they are pitiably fragile with age, scrawny bags of bones, almost cadavers deserving of compassion. But a frost of rage seeded in their young days has crowded all pity from my heart. These worn-out figures do not ask for mercy, nor can I grant it.
I walk over to Maclean, or perhaps I should say this remnant of Maclean and kick him in the face. My boot goes through his head as it would through toasted paper. In this dead silence I go to each of them, an arrogant victor in a bitter war, bashing skulls, twisting limbs, kicking in the vitals. I see Eastern, up on one elbow, trying to rise again and recall that recalled that we once named him Slasher. I boot his supporting arm away and stomp on his head. It crushes without resistance as if he had been a corpse for a thousand years. All that remains of him is a pile of grey powder. As I turn to survey the scene of what I expect to be carnage, but no blood. My long overdue requital leaves only piles of grey ash. I walk off toward the distant horizon, kicking the remnants of these hateful ghosts aside.
Robert Hebditch grew up in London, and entered the U.S. after a five-year odyssey around the world. He was a contributing editor to the Macmillan Dictionary of Archaeology, wrote movie reviews for the Courier News, and has published two stories in past fiction issues. Married with two sons, he is a retired staff member of Princeton University and lives in Princeton.