Old Jim had told us specifically that they had to be finished by the time he came back inside, and there was to be No Talking.
Illustration by Watto
The work rate in the room always improved considerably after those demonstrations. For an hour afterwards, essays on 'What I did at the Gladstone Show' were written with remarkable speed, accuracy and neatness, and times tables were sung aloud with the fervour of students at a Madrassah learning their Qur'an.
Not having been caned, it seemed to me a fate only just slightly less horrific than death. It had all the allure of a serious car accident for those of us who stumble upon them. The main attraction for the voyeur is that not only is it dramatic, it’s someone else and not actually you, though it could easily be.
Had I been given the chance to protest my innocence, I would gladly have yielded up any or all of my classmates to any fate, including burning at the stake or garotting, in a desperate effort to wriggle my way out of the horror that was upon me. But Old Jim was working his way up the row towards me, dragging the left hand of every boy out in front of each yowling child and delivering two cuts to the fingers of the hand.
I should point out that they were not actually cuts in the physical sense, but we always referred to them like that – e.g., ‘Kelvin Thompson got 4 cuts today, Mum’ – not an unusual occurrence for Kelvin, who, as a seasoned veteran, took them stoically, with a bit of an affected wince to guarantee he didn’t get more – but it was an entirely novel and terrifying prospect for me.
Howl and scream before the event, naturally, in a vain attempt to prove contrition. Some of the others, also new to this form of correction, had even snatched up their slate pencils and were pretending to work out the twelve-fold division of the five quid with its troublesome coins detailed on the uncompleted Sum Card, but it was a forlorn hope. I did not even attempt it. I knew nothing was going to save me. So I did what any sensible 6 year old scared utterly witless at the sight of the approaching cane would do.