The Friday evening traffic was even slower than usual as I drove out of town. I had been late getting away from the office, and although I had showered and changed as quickly as I could, I knew I was going to arrive late. A familiar feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach was growing with every minute. Not for the first time, I tried to take my mind off the coming weekend by thinking back and wondering just how I had got myself into this situation.
Just after the summer holidays, my friend John had talked me into resuming our twice-weekly squash games. We had known each other a long time; he had been a couple of years ahead of me in school, then we had gone to the same university, and had ended up working for the same firm. In the past we had been well-matched on the squash court, but over time I had given up other sports and was becoming decidedly unfit. In our first game after the holidays, I lost by a record margin.
"What's wrong with you, Peter?" he asked me in the changing rooms afterwards. "You're getting slower and slower. I suppose you're still smoking."
"Well - " I said lamely, "I don't have much time for fitness these days. I have to start working for the exams I've got next year."
"It's a bit late to start working for them now. It took me two years hard work. Of course, you were always brighter than me, but you're lazy. The only thing that kept you working at school was the cane."
I felt my face reddening.
"Oh, I remember that very well," he went on, seeming to enjoy my embarrassment. "How many times did I have to cane you for smoking? And each time you already had a good set of stripes on your arse. Then when you got to university and the pressure was off, you just stopped working. You were lucky to get a degree at all, and even luckier that the firm took you on. But from what I hear, you just doss around here, too."
"That's not true," I protested. "All right, sometimes I find it a bit hard to motivate myself - "
"In that case, you need someone to motivate you," he said. "I found someone who helped me prepare for the exams. Without him, I'd never have got through. Here - " He scribbled something on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. "This is his phone number. Give him a call. He uses traditional methods - just what you need."
"Traditional methods?" I repeated, grabbing my holdall and heading for the door.
"You know what I mean," John said pointedly, following me outside. He glared at me as I lit a cigarette and said, "He'll cure you of that, too."
I suppose I did know what he meant, and also that he was right. I did need motivating and I couldn't do it myself. That was how I found myself spending two weekends a month with a man who referred to himself as "Uncle".
On the Friday night I had to report to him at 8 pm sharp, and the penalties for lateness were severe. Today it was almost ten past eight when I at last parked on the street near the entrance to his front drive. He had a large Victorian house set well back from the street, and there was ample space to park in his grounds, but I was told to park on the street and walk up. That way, the punishment began as soon as I got out of the car. Before leaving home, I had to change into a plain white shirt, school tie, grey short trousers and knee-length grey socks. My black lace-up shoes had to be polished until they shone. And today - just my luck - there was an old man out walking his dog on the road, and I wasn't going to let him see me looking like an overgrown schoolboy. I waited till he went round a corner out of sight, then got out of the car and started walking up the drive, carrying only a school-type exercise book - the Punishment Book.
It was a cold winter evening and the east wind chilled me to the bone; I was never allowed to wear a jacket or coat, and the icy air on my bare legs always felt especially unpleasant. As the huge, grim house came into view I always felt a sense of foreboding. Of course, it was probably no different from thousand of others up and down the country, but I knew what I was going to suffer there - or rather, I thought I did. Because, although my Uncle was very skilled at administering all kinds of corporal punishment, he also managed to find many other ways to hurt and humiliate me.
Shivering with cold and fear, I rang the doorbell. I have no idea how long I had to wait; I always had to leave my watch at home or in the car - that was just one of his cruelties. Eventually the door opened and he stood before me, tall and menacing; he never turned the porch light on, and the hall light was dim and lit him from behind. "Do you know what time it is?" he said.
"Please sir - " and then I stopped, but it was already too late. One of the many rules was to answer his questions directly, with no hesitation.
"Answer the question." I knew I had already earned my first punishment.
"Eight twelve pm when I got out of the car, sir."
"Twelve minutes late. Two strokes for every minute. That will be twenty-four with the cane some time this evening. Come in."
He led me into his study, a large room full of bookcases with a huge desk and several chairs which I had already bent over many times. The first part of the Friday evening was a ritual which hardly changed. I had to stand absolutely still while he checked me over to see if I had prepared myself properly. Needless to say he always found something wrong. Today I had had no time to scrub my fingernails, and he found a couple of specks of dirt. My shoes were not sufficiently polished. And, as always, my long grey socks were not properly pulled up. This was a real torture: the socks had to be turned over just below the knee, at exactly the same level, and the coloured stripes had to be perfectly horizontal and also at the same level. It was more or less impossible to do this to his satisfaction: he knew it, and I knew it to.
Then he made me stand in front of his desk while he read the Punishment Book. I had to keep a list of all the things I had done wrong since the previous session. To begin with, I had - not unnaturally - tried to keep the list as short as possible, but I soon found out, very painfully, that John was keeping him informed of my shortcomings at work. So now I wrote everything down and hoped for the best. But today I knew that my date was sealed.
"What's this?" he said. "'Went out for a drink with colleagues to celebrate someone's birthday. Drank five pints and smoked a packet of cigarettes.' What did I tell you about drinking and smoking?"
"Not to drink and not to smoke, sir."
"And you disobeyed me. Well, we'd better get started. Drop your shorts and pants and bend over the chair."
He took a heavy leather strap and began to whip my arse very hard. I gritted my teeth, but before long I was crying out. I knew that the very first session of punishment would break me, and that it could only get worse. Finally, when I was gasping for breath and tears were trickling down my face, he paused. "Now that I've got your attention, we can start on the Punishment Book. Late for work, rude to secretaries, warning from your section head for careless work - let's say fifty with the tawse in all."
He had a very nasty two-tailed tawse, broad at the handle and narrowing down to a couple of hardened leather thongs that bit into the flesh like teeth. The very first stroke had me howling. After the first twenty-five I had to step out of my shorts and pants and stand in the corner, hands on head. My buttocks were burning but I knew better than to rub them. I don't know how long I had to stand there, but my arms and shoulders were aching almost unbearably when he had me resume my position over the chair. The second twenty-five were even harder, and the room was full of the snapping sound of the tawse and my yells of pain.
Then I had to stand in front of him, hands on head again. "Tonight I intend to teach you not to arrive late for your appointments. You have already earned twenty-four with the cane. But before that you will write lines for me. 'Arriving late for an appointment is an act of intolerable impertinence for which I deserve the most severe punishment.' Two hundred times in your best handwriting."
In the corner of his study facing the wall was a small table and a hard stool; on the table was a pen and a writing pad. I was not allowed to put my shorts back on, and sitting on the stool was agony. Scarcely able to keep my hand from shaking, I started on my humiliating punishment; I knew that he was sitting at his desk watching me, and I dared not stop writing for one moment. Tears still welling in my eyes, my backside burning and throbbing, I tried to concentrate on my task; I knew that he would check the lines carefully, and if there was just one error, however small, I would have to do them again, perhaps twice or even three times.
After what seemed like hours, I was finished. I laid the pen to one side and waited. Eventually he told me to bring him the lines. I stood in front of his desk, hands on head, while he read them. His face was totally impassive. Eventually he said, "Your handwriting is a disgrace. But we have all weekend to put that right. You will be relieved to hear that you will not have to write any more lines tonight. In fact, I doubt if you would be able to. For your dirty fingernails you will take six of the cane on each hand."
My stomach turned over. He had never caned me on the hands before and I did not think I would be able to take it. He went to the large cupboard where he kept his instruments of chastisement and took out a medium-length and very flexible cane, which he bent double. "Face to your right and hold out your right hand. Higher!" Trembling, I did as I was told. I had no choice. He raised the cane high about his shoulder and brought it whistling down. There was a deafening crack and a line of searing pain erupted across my palm. I let out a resounding yell, but somehow managed to keep my tortured hand in position. Five more strokes fell, each worse than the one before. "Face the other way and hold out the left hand. Come on, hurry up!" And my left hand got the same treatment. Blinded by pain and tears, I hopped around, waving my hands and pressing them under my armpits in a vain attempt to ease the stinging. He just looked at me, his face still expressionless.
"Maybe that will teach you to do better next time."
"Yes sir, thank you sir," I managed to gasp.
"Now we'll finish off with those twenty-four you earned for being late. You'd better take them on the backside, hadn't you?"
"Take off your shirt, shoes and socks, and bend over the chair."
Somehow I got myself back into position. I tried to grip the legs of the chair to steady myself, but my hands hurt too much. Stark naked, totally humiliated, I waited for my punishment.
The first stroke fell with a crack like a pistol shot. I managed not to cry out this time, but my courage was short-lived. By the fifth stroke he had me yelling and begging for mercy like a first-form schoolboy. Of course, mercy was out of the question. If anything, the strokes got harder as he got his eye in. At the end of my thrashing I was sobbing helplessly.
I knew better than to get up. In the calm silence that followed, broken only by my snivelling, I could hear heavy rain beating against the window. "Now," he said quietly but menacingly, "as for the smoking and the drinking, we need to get you fit again. Tomorrow morning at seven o'clock you will go for a cross-country run in the woods behind the house. I shall expect you to complete it in under forty minutes. For every minute over the forty, you will get three strokes of the cane. Do you understand?"
"Yes sir," I gasped.
"All right, we've finished for tonight. You may go to bed."
He sat down again behind his desk and didn't even glance at me as, naked and shaking, I slowly straightened up and left the room. My "bedroom" was a small, bare room on the ground floor, which had perhaps been used as store room at one time. It was on the north side of the house and was always bitterly cold; there was one very small window high up in the wall. On the floor was a thin mattress and some rough blankets; next to the mattress, a jug of water and a plate with two stale crusts of bread. In the corner was a bucket. The room was lit by a bare electric light bulb and the switch was on the outside.
I had just had time to use the bucket and climb shivering under the blankets when I heard his footsteps outside. The light went out and the key turned in the lock.