Gasps gave way to gossip, shock to speculation, as the girls of Hadlington College filed into their morning assembly. The birching block’s presence on the stage before them was the stuff of legend, of nightmares – making fleeting appearances that left indelible marks on girls’ attitude and conduct. And there it was, atopped by a freshly cut sprig of birch rods, tightly bound.

Who? Why?

The head girl quelled their excited, nervous hubbub with her customary proclamation: “Silence for the headmistress”. Miss Jensen walked between them from the back of the room, climbed the stairs to the stage and frowned down at her charges as if seeking out the guilty party. “We will start with hymn number 184,” she announced, proffering no clues as to the more fascinating matter at hand.

Readings followed – young Charlotte O’Neill of the Upper Fourth reciting her carefully rehearsed poem into a vacuum of bored anticipation; the Lower Sixth’s Caitlin Quinton quoting a dull passage from Keats that merely prolonged the agonising wait.

Miss Jensen herself spun proceedings out – a lecture on dress code (“too many girls are wearing skirts that are far too short”), praise for the lacrosse team’s latest successes, and a warning about conduct in the snowy weather. “It’s dangerous underfoot, girls: easy to slip. I’d ask you all to re-read section 27 of the school rulebook, which you’ll no doubt recall relates to safe conduct in wintry conditions.”

She paused, as if for effect, and looked up disapprovingly. “On which subject… A very disturbing incident took place yesterday afternoon, just after the final bell, when a gaggle of girls were engaged in a snowball fight immediately inside the school gate. They were challenged by Professor Carter, who as you’ll all know is Chairman of our Governors, as he was on his way to a governing body meeting.”

Amidst 250 enthralled pupils listening to the story unfold, a few were starting to panic. “To my great concern, as soon as he walked away, the snowballs resumed once more – and one was thrown directly at him, hitting him on the back of the head. This is not how Hadlington girls behave. I have assured the Professor that this is completely out of order, and that the girl responsible will be soundly punished. Will she please come forward to the stage.”

Heads turned, seeking out the culprit, the soon-to-be-victim. Those involved? Trying to supress blushes, trying not to make eye contact with their friends. (They wouldn’t be able to identify us, would they?). And the guilty party? Panic, fear, hope that she might evade detection…

“I’m waiting. I’m sure you know who you are, and it’ll be even worse for you if we have to go to the trouble of identifying you during the day, rather than you coming forward voluntarily now.” And so Amber Underwood, tears welling in her eyes, pushed past the line of girls around her and walked unsteadily towards the stage. A collective gulp of surprise marked her confession: Amber? Quiet, well-behaved, academic Amber?

She climbed the stairs as if in a daze, marching to her personal scaffold. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the headmistress enquired. “No, Miss Jensen.” Guilty as charged: why on earth did I do it? Might, possibly, she relent now she’d seen who was to blame – not one of the bad girls: just a frolic, that had gone too far in a moment of over-exuberance.

“Then your behaviour falls quite clearly into the category of transgressions that can only be dealt with by the most serious remedy I have available to me. Remove your blazer, skirt and knickers, and mount the punishment block, with your bottom facing the other members of the school.”

The girl prepared herself, leaning forward with legs straight and body forward over the wooden contraption, hands dangling down to grasp the bar at floor level. Meanwhile, the headmistress took up the birch – as was the custom, prepared for her that morning by the school’s head porter – and swished it knowingly, menacingly through the air.

Once Amber was bared and positioned, Miss Jensen walked over to her and spoke softly into her ear: “Bend tight over and reach right forward. And do not let go. I am surprised and disappointed to find you in this situation, Miss Underwood: I’d have thought better of you.” And then she turned and spoke to the girls: “I shall be inflicting 15 strokes of the birch. I’d ask you all to watch closely, lest you ever feel tempted to conduct yourselves in a similarly-unacceptable manner.”

Yet watching was hard, as Amber struggled under the rod’s merciless cuts – administered hard enough to take away her breath, and then to burn and to build, the cumulative effect of the strokes quite unbelievable.

Five strokes of the birch are hard to watch – and harder to take. Fifteen? With one’s friends, fellow pupils, watching over one’s public flogging? Amber clung on tightly to the block, too scared to give in, to leap up and reach back to quell the pain. She lost count somewhere around eight; thought it must be over when Miss Jensen paused momentarily, until another blow descended – and then another, harder still.

And then the headmistress walked away, the assembly hall silent save for the punished girl’s sobbing, until an audible sigh of collective relief filled the room.

“Please dress, Miss Underwood, and take your place back amongst the girls in the hall. And report to my secretary during morning break to collect a letter to take home to your parents this evening.” The girl dressed, as quickly as she could, trying not to let the other girls see her cry. And then, ashamed, she walked painfully back down from the stage and resumed her place in the lines amidst the other girls and their comforting hugs.

“And one final thing,” the headmistress was saying. “Whilst Miss Underwood was the girl who threw the snowball at Professor Carter yesterday evening, she was clearly not alone in breaking school rules by participating in the snowball fight. And I will not tolerate pupils directly disobeying an instruction from the Chairman of Governors, as you did when you resumed after he’d instructed you to desist. Would each of the other girls involved please raise a hand.”

As they glanced at each other, the same thoughts flickered through each girl’s mind: if I don’t confess, how will they ever find out? And what’s going to happen if I do? But Amber, sobbing amidst them, had taken her punishment – and so, hesitantly, a small forest of hands appeared in the air around her.

“Thank you for owning up. Please keep your hands in the air, and stay in your places as the other girls leave the room so that I may make a list. And then you shall each present yourself to your respective housemaster or housemistress immediately before lunch today, when you will each be given six strokes of the cane. Now, other than for the group of girls with their hands in the air, this morning’s assembly is dismissed…”

© Abel 2010 –

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