Pulp.net - Tawse

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November 2008
TAWSE

Rob McClure Smith
’78 was the year teachers took to wearing shoulder holsters as some kind of S&M fashion statement, maybe coming to relish the light touch of leather on nipple through a kinky-thin dress shirt.

Mr Craig still enjoyed ritual display though. On the first day of class, before saying a word, he lifted the belt out of his desk drawer, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, and laid the strap down in front of him, smoothing it out with his fingers.

Craig was the kind of person would keep a pet snake.

Positioning a long piece of chalk on the desk, he whipped the belt up and over his shoulder then back in one fluid motion, the length of leather an arc of blur in the air, the crack’s aftermath a narrow line of white dust.

It wasn’t as if we needed the preview either, being a ridiculously well behaved crew, spawn of doctors, dentists, lawyers, high-flyers destined for the universities, charter members of the lucky sperm club. The only schemies streamed into 3B1 were Sandra MacNamee and myself. That Craig felt the need to display his talents to the pan loaf brigade said a lot about his personality. The man wasn’t a bad teacher though: the teacher was probably just a bad man.

It wasn’t until the third week that we had a better demonstration of his expertise. The music classroom was in a temporary mobile building, a wooden shack on stilts really, two rooms back to back so everything that happened in the adjacent space was semi-audible, sounds echoing hollow through the plywood. This was more of a problem for the history teacher next door. I can’t imagine you’d want the Queen of the Night popping a vein during your explanation of the Corn Laws or Holst’s Mars erupting into the subtleties of Bismarck’s foreign policy. Sure, Saint Saens’ skeletons rattling away during a ‘Battles of the Great War’ session might work. But it wasn’t an ideal situation, and this was a Friday afternoon, a time when kids were restless and edgy anyway, weekend yearning, all of us with the same sick dream of shopping, when there was Miss Martin, the picture-pretty young history teacher, knocking quietly and poking her head around the door. She looked upset, red-eyed and shaky of voice. Craig got up from the piano and followed her outside. They talked briefly. Then he came back inside and took out his tawse.

Pin-drop time.

We heard a commotion in the alcove between the rooms, a shouted command, and the thwack of leather on skin, an electric charge in the room now, the smell of fear and imminence of pain burning the air sultry. Craig had a reputation as someone who could really draw. Usually, you heard two clean thwacks, the shuffling of footsteps, a closing door. Sometimes, if it was a girl, sniffles. Boys weren’t supposed to cry. But this was new. Six dull smacks in succession. We stirred in sympathy. Dull meant hard. Each crack of the belt was followed by a muffled conversation and sharp intakes of breath. Then, abruptly, the door of the room flew open, and there he stood, red-faced and furious, veins in his neck bulging like trawler cables, fingers clenched pale on the upturned collar of a blazer. The boy in the blazer was sputtering tears everywhere, gloriously, uncontrollably, a torrent, his face streaked every which way, snot-encrusted, his little blue and yellow tie damp and askew.

‘Have a gander at this, will you?’ said Craig.

‘Sir… ’ The boy looked around, in mortification.

‘Would you have a look at this… Have a good look at this. Here’s your hard man. Your big hard man.’

He shook the boy like a doll, bobbling his head. ‘You’re a real hard man, right? A Glasgow hard man! See the hard man? See him? See the wee hard man?’

The boy was blubbering now, ‘Sir… Please… ’

‘Doesn’t look like no Glasgow hard man to me. Just a big wean. Big hard man, eh? I am soooo terrified. Out.’

Craig shoved the boy outside and slammed the door. We were stunned, in awe. But it was over at least.

From the alcove came a hoarse roar: ‘GET THEM UP. CROSSED OVER. TWELVE O’CLOCK.’

The belting went on and on keeping metronome time to the sobbing. A music teacher, see, has quite the aptitude for rhythm.

I wheeled around at my desk to check out Sandra, because her face was a comfort to me that year, even if we never spoke. She kept her distance from the toffs and I didn’t, already exploring the intricacies of class betrayal, my intention being to do for that shower later, a spy in the house of cash.

Like the other girls, Sandra had invested a lot of time making her uniform over into a Lolita special. Girls were supposed to wear their skirts below the knee, but subverted the regulation right and left, hitching them mini-high in the bathrooms. They even found ways to make their school ties provocative — folding them over in double loops and shortening the knot, letting the blue and yellow stripes droop between their breasts.

Sandra was a serious dress code offender. She’d also puffed out her hair and caked on enough thick black eyeliner to provoke a serious double take. Shooting for Siouxsie Sioux sexiness, she looked like a startled raccoon.

But however weird and insolent her punk fashion sense, she was still cute as a squirrel’s nut to me. Her hair hung in her eyes when she leaned forward, hiding them from view, but the slight dishevelment only emphasized the delicacy of her features, which I thought extraordinarily lovely. She had the white-pale skin redheads so often have, with a few light freckles scattered on the bridge of her nose and two more prominent spots on her right cheek. These upset the symmetry of her face and my first thought was that they took something away from her loveliness. My second was that they somehow confirmed it.

I don’t want to wax philosophical here, because what I don’t know about philosophy is a lot, but I think beauty is always flawed somehow. That girl’s face was flawed only so you might give yourself over to looking at it forever, watching passing emotions rearrange her features in ever more gorgeous patterns, and reassembling patterns of your own as you dreamt yourself awake over her.

But when I saw her sitting there that day, at the zenith of the cracks and sobs, she didn’t look remotely upset, just remote, eyes expressionless and indifferent, so far gone inside herself.

Craig, back and cheerier, soon had us all engaged in pointless busywork. He kept glancing out the window though, hoping to catch a glimpse of Miss Martin probably. Occasionally, he’d drum roll his fingernails against a wooden ruler on his desk.

The class was restless again, relieved some, an animal sensitive to its master’s mood. In response to idle chatter in the back row, he looked up.

‘Eileen? Hello? Do you have something to say? Excuse me, sorry to interrupt sweetie, but do you have SOMETHING to say.’

‘It wis Sandra, sir.’

‘Sir, it wis me. Ah forgot the book.’

‘You forgot your book. But she was talking.’

‘Ah wis asking Eileen if ah could borrow the book frae her fur a minute. Sorry.’

‘Didn’t you forget it last class too?’

‘Aye.’

‘Correct me if I’m wrong. Then I said… ’

‘Next time lines.’

‘Lines. Lines it is. A hundred. Same book? I expect better from you.’ Craig stood up and sighed theatrically, slouching against the lectern. ‘Really, if you people are going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an O Grade we’re going to have to see some major knuckling down. This isn’t a holiday camp here, is it? Eh?’

He scowled at his roomful of malingerers, but you could tell that his heart wasn’t really in it. We were quiet now anyway, copying in our jotters, noses sniffing the blue-stained banda-print worksheets. He was idly ticking down his roster, back at rattling the ruler, until he became aware of her scent cutting through the alcohol. He glanced up, startled.

There was something wraithlike about her in those days, the way she could materialize at your elbow, drifting into your presence undetected, if it weren’t for that perfume of hers drenching the air, soaking deep in your pores.

‘Yes? Forget something else?’

The remark was sarcastic but not malevolent. Craig was fond of her actually. He liked smart kids. Most teachers do. She was so pretty as well, a real smasher.

‘Aboot the lines?’ She leaned across the desk. ‘Ah jist remembered that ah cannae dae them this weekend, sir. Because of the me nobody knows.’

Craig put down his pen very deliberately and combed his fingers through his hair. He stretched forward, speaking quietly, keeping their conversation as private as possible. We were all listening like mad, of course.

‘Let’s see now. Hmm. Let me just review this. You can’t do the lines I gave you because there’s a you that nobody knows? Well, why don’t you tell me about the you nobody knows? I’m soooo intrigued.’

‘The play. This weekend. “The Me Nobody Knows.” The school play.’ Sandra seemed amused, a stifled smile playing around the corners of her mouth. ‘Ah telt Mrs Graham ah’d help oot oan the light crew.’

He was snapping out of his reverie now, blushing. ‘The play. Yes. I knew that. The play.’

‘So if ah could git an extension till… ’

‘No extensions. Come on… ’

‘But… ’

‘I said no.’ He made a shooing gesture. ‘Away you go. What’s with your hair these days anyway, Sandra?’ he added, grinning. ‘Looks like this massive helmet of frozen fur.’

She looked at him and shrugged slightly. As she sauntered back to her desk, and this was most definitely a casual saunter, she uttered the word quite audibly.

‘Eegit.’

Twenty heads flew up as if synchronized.

‘I beg your pardon, Sandra?’

Beyond the radiator hum there was a perfect silence.

‘Ah didnae say nuthin,’ Sandra lied.

‘I could have sworn you did.’

‘No.’

They looked at one another. Her face was a mask.

‘Carry on!’ yelled Craig.

We hunched over, snorting up some more chemicals.

Craig was stewing. He had trouble concentrating on anything but Sandra now. He looked towards the back of the classroom where she scribbled in her workbook, occasionally pausing to suck her pen cap or sniff the worksheet or flip that red hair of hers aimlessly from side to side. I could tell that she knew he was watching her too.

Then I heard the music. True, it’s not unusual to hear music in a music classroom. But not the Dead Boys. She was listening to her portable cassette player, nodding away as though it were the most common pastime imaginable. Heads were swiveling all around the classroom. Wee Gillian Moyes looked like she was going to have a conniption fit. I couldn’t imagine a more incendiary method of insulting him. It was just so inspired.

‘Miss MacNamee,’ he screamed. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

Of course, she couldn’t hear him. Or pretended that this was the case. He had to stand right in front of her, gesticulating wildly, like a deranged ape. He couldn’t just rip her headphones off, however great the temptation. Eventually, Sandra lifted them off slowly and laid them on the desk in front of her. She sighed, smoothing the wires out with her fingers. She was imitating him.

‘Sir,’ she said. ‘Ah jist minded whit it was ah called you.’ She said this in an excited way, as though it were an important revelation. ‘Ah wisnae sure whether it wis “arsehole” or “fuckheid”, ’cause it could huv bin either, right? But it wis jist “eegit”.’

This must have been like nightmares Craig had about teaching. And there was no waking up from this one. She was the last person he could have expected to give him lip too. He quivered like blancmange.

‘Out front. Now. Out!’

She followed him to the front of the classroom and leaned against his blackboard. He snatched the belt out of the desk drawer again. I could see his fingers tremble. They were not going to do this outside.

‘Hands.’

‘Both?’

‘Yes. That’s good.’

This was to be a very business-like transaction, or even a domestic one. I had heard people employ a similar tone with ‘Milk and sugar?’ Sandra placed her left hand on top of her right and held both out with the thumbs establishing the width of the target area. Her eyes looked straight ahead and fixed on a point over his shoulder. He threw the belt back and brought it down quickly. It snapped off the ends of her fingers. She flinched on contact along the length of the tongs.

‘Again,’ he said.

She moved her right hand on top. This time, he swung harder. The smack of leather on skin was more palpable, a dull slap.

When he hit for a third time, swinging down quickly, bringing his weight to bear on the palms, tears spilled and etched parallel paths down her cheeks. Sandra saw that he noticed and wiped them away angrily. He was breathing heavily and she was looking at him now with an expression of utter disdain. I had never seen her look this way before. It was frightening.

‘You OK sir?’ She was that cool and collected in her insolence.

‘Again.’

‘FOUR?’

‘Four. Again.’

The last blow, the hardest, caught her differently somehow. She moaned and bent over double, clutching herself, falling forward onto her knees. For a second, I thought he had hurt her badly, but then realized she was picking shards of glass from the floor. Her wristwatch had shattered in a thousand pieces. The watchband had snapped clean off and the face fallen free to smash on the floor tiles. He had forgotten the ritual, how the recipients of corporal punishment were required to offer their jewelry before offering their hands.

Her index finger was bleeding slightly. I could see a tiny half moon of red. Craig and the kids in the front row seats hunkered down on the floor to help her retrieve the broken pieces.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Obviously, I’ll pay for the repair... for the watch. This is all completely my...’

He stopped to pick something up. Tiny metal hands bent all askew, paper thin, almost transparent. Lifting them carefully with two fingernails, he placed them gently in her outstretched palm, offering them to her from his knees like that, a supplicant.

‘I found this,’ he whispered.

She stood up, a tallish young woman. I’d never really taken in till then just how tall she had become, or how she might employ that height of hers to look down upon someone with such utter disdain.

‘Well, that must jist make you feel like a real hard man, Mr Craig,’ she sneered.

She was looking at his crotch. Staring, actually.

Then we all were.

The period bell clattered and no one stirred. The radiator hummed. Minutes passed. Or maybe it was just a couple of centuries.

‘Well, are you going?’ Craig yelled, crouched over awkwardly. ‘Or do you lot plan to stay in here all weekend? It could be fucking arranged, you know.’

I cornered my mother in the scullery that night.

‘Were you ever belted at school?’ I asked.

‘Ah cannae believe they still let them do that.’

‘So you were?’

She stood by the churning Whirlpool, thinking back to the day. She held a little raveled ball of white socks in each hand. The old man’s white vests hung drying on the pulley overhead. When she spoke, it was staccato.

‘Definitely twice. Mibbe more. Wan time involved a snowba’. Ah remember sumthin’aboot a snowba’. Beatin’ Beaton did a big line of us. It really stung. They never drew it hard wi’ girls though. Usually went easier. This wid be primary school.’

‘That’s horrible,’ I said.

‘Ah remember auld Mrs McIntosh didnae use it. She used tae pick us up by the hair and swing us aroon the classroom instead.’ My mother smiled curiously at the recollection. ‘Ah’ve niver forgot that auld wumman. Sometimes ah dream aboot her. Aye, ah remember the boys used tae rank teachers on how they drew the belt.’

‘We still do.’

‘Them human rights people’ll ban it,’ she said. ‘Ah read that in the Record. It’s worse doon South.’ Mum poured a stream of powered soap in the slot. ‘They use the birch in them public schools. Flay your rear end aff wi’ canes doon there. That’s the English fur you. That’s how come so many of them turn oot poofters.’

‘That’s way too much information,’ I said.

‘The belt’s jist anither Glesca tradition,’ she said. ‘Like Rangers and Celtic and shortbread and stickin’ the heid oan people ootside pubs.’

Then she laughed, but not the funny kind.

That was ’78 for me. There were thirty-six more weeks till the Summer holidays and already I was so much in love.






© Rob McLure Smith 2005
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