The campsite was in a secluded spot, sheltered by surrounding peaks yet with a view westward down the valley. The sun was low and the shadows were lengthening. I had been bringing school hiking groups to this campsite in the Lake District for many years, and this was one of the most beautiful evenings I could remember. All week we had had fine weather, and this, our last evening at the camp, should have been a pleasant and enjoyable time for everyone. And a few idiots had spoiled it. Although I had a reputation for firmness at the school, I allowed a more relaxed atmosphere at the camp: there were only twelve boys there, ten juniors and two seniors, and generally they responded well to a little more freedom than they were used to. But today's events required a firm response. "Oh well," I thought to myself, "better get it over with." From the corner of my tent I fetched the heavy strap that went around a big metal packing case.
Outside, the boys were sitting in a semicircle around a trestle, as I had ordered. The evening sunshine was still warm and they were wearing just T-shirts and brief shorts. "Helvellyn group, stay seated," I snapped. "Scafell group, line up."
The Helvellyn group looked uneasy, not knowing whether to be relieved for themselves or to sympathize with their friends. Their senior, Cawthorne, looked particularly embarrassed. The Scafell group lined up, the senior boy, Marder, at the end of the line and looking distinctly unhappy.
"All right," I said to them, running the strap between my hands, "you've been here a week and I've told you the rules to respect in the mountains. Today you have all broken one of the most important ones. Which one?"
There was a silence, then Marder said hesitantly, "The group must always stay together, sir?"
"Nice try, Marder," I said acidly. "We'll get back to that. Your group broke an even more important rule, and put other people in danger. Come on, you know what I'm talking about."
"Rolling stones, sir," said a junior voice.
"Exactly. Why is it dangerous to roll stones down a hillside?"
"They might land on a path below and injure another hiker, sir."
"Yes. Or you might even start a small landslide if you were on loose scree. And the entire group was doing it!" The boys jumped. Even I was surprised by the anger in my voice. "Six strokes of the strap apiece. You, Marder, you're responsible for your group, so you get six too. But you weren't with them, were you? Why not?"
"I - er - I dropped back, sir."
"I know you dropped back. I had my binoculars with me, I saw you. And I saw you smoking a cigarette. You, a senior boy, with a good chance of becoming rugby captain, what do you do? Ruin your health smoking. Where are the cigarettes?"
"In my pocket, sir."
"Give them to me." He handed them over and I threw the packet to one of the seated Helvellyn lads. "Throw those on the campfire. Now!" He scurried off. I waited for him to return, and all the time I gave Marder my most severe gaze. The lad swallowed hard and the muscles in his thick, sun-tanned legs twitched a little. "I'm going to make an example of you, Marder. Six strokes because the group was rolling stones and you are responsible for the group. Six strokes for dropping back and thus not keeping the group together. And twelve strokes for smoking." He swallowed again. He had not expected that. "All right, shorts and underpants off you lot. You, Watson, you can go first. Over the trestle."
The junior bent over and I gave him his six. As I dealt with the other juniors, I could see Marder out of the corner of my eye looking more and more uncomfortable. His position as group senior and future rugby captain required him to take his thrashing without a sound, but he knew full well that it would be difficult.
The fifth junior stood up, his backside red, tears streaming down his face. The five were now lined up, most of them crying openly, hands at their sides: they knew they were not to rub their bottoms. But they had got off relatively lightly: now I doubled the strap over and slapped it against my hand. "Marder. Over the trestle."
The first stroke of the doubled-over strap made a sound like a pistol shot. Marder's buttocks twitched and he tightened his grip on the trestle. I gave him six, then took a short break, as much for myself as for him. The juniors were fidgeting and snivelling but for once I took no notice of them. I gave Marder his next six, then six again. By now he was breathing heavily and his knuckles were white. His backside was covered with angry red welts.
I took careful aim, and the nineteenth stroke fell. He grunted slightly. After the next he grunted again, and the next stroke after that produced a kind of strangled groan. Apart for a few birds twittering in the trees, there was no sound except the crack of the strap and his moans of pain. Number twenty-two, and he went on groaning. After number twenty-three, I could see he was fighting not to yell. I moved back a little, raised the strap as high as I could, and brought it down with all my strength. The sound was deafening, and elicited a half-swallowed cry from the lad.
"Stand up," I snapped. His face was only a few inches from mine. He was fighting to keep his self-control: there were tears in his eyes and he knew I could see them. But I knew that he was worried about more than the fire in his buttocks. "This is between you and me, Marder. The rugby master won't hear about it."
He held my gaze. In his dark eyes there was a mixture of fear and defiance. He just about managed to say, "Thank you, sir."
"All right, get dressed, all of you. I want you in bed by 9.30. We have to be up early tomorrow to strike camp and catch our train."
That should have been the end of it. The boys had been punished, Marder had been humiliated, and yet he had taken his beating well. All the same, I felt restless and unsatisfied. Our last evening at camp together had been spoiled. One of the lads of the Helvellyn group had brought out his guitar and tried to start a few songs, but no-one really felt like singing, least of all the Scafell group, a couple of whom were still crying. After they all turned in, I wandered in the fields around the campsite, aided by the light of the full moon which had just risen. And so it was much later than usual when I made my rounds of the boys' tents. Each group of juniors had their own tent, and both tents were dark and silent. The two seniors shared another tent, and to my surprise I noticed a dim light coming through the flap. As I approached, I heard Cawthorne's voice:
"Christ, he's made a mess of your arse. Sadistic bastard."
"Yeah," replied Marder's voice, "that's all he lives for, whacking defenceless kids. That's what turns him on. Oh, that's good, a bit deeper ..."
I crouched down and looked through the flap. Both boys were lying on their stomachs and Cawthorne was applying ointment to Marder's wounds, working it right down between his cheeks. They were both quite excited, I noticed.
"Gross impertinence," I snapped. The two boys jumped as if they had been slapped. "I shall cane you both tomorrow morning. Now put that light out and go to sleep."
Out of habit, I had been bringing a heavy senior cane to the camp, but until now I had never had to use it. My anger at Marder grew even fiercer. Would that boy never learn? The following morning, after breakfast, the trestle was brought out again and I assembled the entire group and told them that Cawthorne and Marder were to be caned for rudeness. They were already looking apprehensively at the cane I was flexing. "You two, take your clothes off. Everything." Slowly, they stripped. Marder's buttocks were covered in bruises and weals.
"Cawthorne, you first. Over the trestle." I took aim and landed the first stroke on his pale, unsullied cheeks. A livid red welt appeared, but he made no sound apart from a sharp intake of breath. The next four followed steadily, and with each stroke he began to writhe a little more. I placed the sixth diagonally across the first five, and that made him yell. But I had been saving myself.
"Cawthorne, up. Over there. Hands on your head." The senior boy was forced to display his stripes to the juniors. But they were already paying more attention to the likely effects of my cane on Marder's already-injured backside.
From the very first stroke, he began again that half-strangled groaning. By the fourth stroke, tears were running freely down his face. The fifth caught him in the centre of his cheeks and he yelled. I knew he expected the sixth to be a diagonal cut, as it had been for Cawthorne, but instead I took careful aim and, with tremendous force, cut him just where the thighs meet the buttocks. His scream echoed off the valley sides, and the weal would be clearly visible below his brief shorts.
"Up. Hands on head." He obeyed, his face contorted in agony. This time there was no defiance in his gaze, just pain and defeat. I turned to the other boys. "I hope you have all learned a lesson. Now, strike camp and let's get home. You two - get dressed."
The tents and other heavy equipment were stored at the local farm and most of the boys' personal belongings were stowed in their rucksacks; anything left over was put in the metal packing case, which was then closed and secured with the strap that had been so useful yesterday evening. A minibus had been organized to take us to Windermere station, where we caught the train. I noticed with satisfaction that, although there were still a few seats free, Cawthorne and Marder preferred to stand. The livid red cane weal at the top of Marder's thighs was clearly visible below his shorts.
Most of us had connecting trains at Oxenholme, but Marder's family lived in the area and his father was waiting for us on the platform. I knew him well: Marder's older brother had also been one of my pupils.
"So the mountaineers got back safely!" said his father. "No avalanches? No lightning strikes? No trouble from my young'un?" He gave Marder an affectionate tap on the rear, but his fingers brushed the cane weal and his face darkened.
"I've taken care of it, Colonel," I said.
"Very decent of you, old boy. Knew I could leave him in your hands all right. Still, I'll have him in my study tonight and hear what he's got to say for himself!" From the expression on Marder's face, he was clearly in no doubt that his visit to the study would be a painful one, whatever he had to say.
The long warm summer continued, and when school resumed a couple of weeks later we were still enjoying the exceptional weather. The first week of school is always a busy time, and for some days I didn't see Marder, although I heard that he had been made rugby captain. Then I was in my study one Friday evening, attending to some paperwork and occasionally looking out over the playing fields, when he knocked at the door.
"Marder. Come in. What can I do for you?" I eyed him curiously. He was wearing his rugby gear, but he had not been training: jersey, shorts and socks were immaculate, the socks neatly turned down just below the knees. Instead of boots he wore gleaming white plimsolls. In his left hand he held what looked like a small notebook, but it disappeared behind his back as he stood at my desk in the "at ease" position. "If it's rugby training you've come for, I'll have to disappoint you. I'm responsible only for cross-country and fell-walking. Rugby is a hooligan's game."
"Played by gentlemen, sir."
"Are you being impertinent again, Marder?"
"No, sir, I just meant - er - well, my father told me I was to come and see you, sir."
"Yes, sir. You see, sir, that day he came to meet me at the station, well, that evening I had to go to his study like he said and then I had to explain what happened, why I got the strap and the cane, sir."
"I trust you told him the truth, Marder."
"Oh yes, sir, I told him everything."
"When it came to that episode between you and Cawthorne, I hope you were discreet," I said acidly.
He turned bright red. "Well, maybe I left out one or two details, sir. Anyway, he wanted to cane me again, but then when he had my trousers down and saw the damage he decided it would be a bit too much. He said I was to compliment you on your accuracy, sir."
"Coming from your father, Marder, that is praise indeed. So he let you off?"
"He let me off the caning, sir. But while we were at camp in the Lake District, he was visiting friends in Scotland. He came back with a Scottish Senior School strap. I got six on each hand."
"Good grief," I said involuntarily. The boy had suffered more than I had intended. To cover my unease, I went on, "Are we going to discuss all the punishments you've had since camp, Marder? I haven't got all night."
He blushed even more. Rugby captains and head prefects often get ideas above their station, and I find it useful to cut them down to size. "No sir. My father wants to ask you a favour, sir. He wants me to keep a diary."
From behind his back, he produced the book and laid it on my desk. It was indeed a diary. Instead of putting his hands behind his back again, he placed them distractedly in his armpits, clearly still thinking about the burning sting of the tawse.
"You see, sir, my father thinks - er - that I'm getting too cheeky and that I need more discipline."
"The school is known for its discipline, boy, I'm sure that's why your father sent you here. And your brother," I added for good measure.
"Yes, sir, but my father says that the masters only know the half of what goes on."
Despite myself, I laughed. "The half? We're lucky if we know ten percent. If you were punished for all your misdeeds, you'd spend all your spare time in detention and you'd get so many hidings, you'd never be able to sit down."
He was getting more and more embarrassed. "Well, yes, sir. So my father wants me to keep a list of everything I do wrong, every time I'm cheeky, things like that. I'm to bring you the list every Friday evening and then you give me my punishment for the week."
"I see. Why me?"
He shifted his feet. "Because - well, sir, it's mainly thanks to you that I got made captain of rugby. That thrashing you gave me, it made me realize I shouldn't smoke. And you didn't say anything to Old F- er - the rugby master, sir."
He was an honest boy, I thought. He had taken a severe punishment without rancour and he deserved to know what I thought. "To tell you the truth, Marder, I felt I had been too harsh on you."
"Oh no, sir!"
"What? Are you disagreeing with me?"
"No sir, I mean, yes sir, I mean - I deserved it, sir. And my father was decent, too, he let me off the caning when he saw what you'd done. I mean - I don't think it was too harsh, sir ..." His voice trailed off in embarrassment but he held my gaze. Again I saw in his eyes that curious mixture of fear and defiance that I had seen after his strapping: he was torn between a desire to rebel and a need to conform. It was a dilemma he could not resolve for himself: I would have to help him.
"Well, Marder, that sounds like disagreement to me, and arguing with a master is impertinence. Have you started keeping that diary?"
"Not yet sir. I wanted to get your permission sir."
"Very clever. All right, you have my permission. Take this pen and write under today's date: impertinence. Six strokes of the cane, bare. You are wearing a jockstrap, I take it?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"Good. Drop your shorts and bend over that chair." I went to my cupboard and selected one of my more painful canes. It was a scene that was repeated regularly that year. But the rugby XV did well under Marder's captaincy, and Marder himself did well in his university entrance exams and got the place he wanted. Now he's trying for the university rugby team. I've contacted a friend of mine who teaches at the university and who can give him the encouragement he needs.