Somewhere, as you read this, a child is being beaten.
But perspective is important in these matters, as in all art (and art is part, at least, of what we are trying to achieve here) so let us not launch in media res, as it were, without some of the wider view.
Consider then, the low rays of the evening sun, which are passing through the french windows at the end of a large and elegant room, Edwardian in its origins and furnished by someone with sufficient taste and wealth to deck the room appropriately. Towards the middle of the room there is a long table of polished wood, to which the ruddy light lends an agreeable richness and warmth. The air smells of wax polish, and faint hints of cigarette smoke and freesias.
There is also a sound, faint but quite distinct, of sobbing.
The latter, it is immediately apparent, comes from one of the room's two occupants, the one who, perhaps, would most immediately catch an observer's eye. He is very young, with the lithe, indiscriminate energy of youth, but his youth is not the feature that would attract your attention. No, that, regardless of your leanings, would be drawn, I think, to the fact that he is bent across the table, his trousers and underpants in a pool of fabric around his ankles, and his naked buttocks presented with helpless immodesty to the inquisitive gaze.
They are fine and shapely young buttocks, for those who are moved by such things. They are, however, marred, by the twelve weals which stripe them in purplish red lines, as if the youth had sat upon a griddle. They are nasty looking weals, over which, in two places, the skin has broken slightly and is oozing serum. Each mark has its edges delineated with a broader stripe of red; in contrast, the unblemished skin seems all the whiter, the almost luminous whiteness of fine Anglo-Saxon skin that has never been exposed to the eye of the sun. Until now, at least, for the westering rays add their own sanguine warmth to the undoubtedly fiery lines.
This humiliating, and doubtless painful, spectacle is viewed contemplatively by a man in perhaps late middle age. He wears a mortar board and gown of the type beloved of British cartoonists when lampooning schoolmasters, despite the fact that they have almost entirely vanished from the groves of Academe except when worn by nervous undergraduates on ceremonial occasions in some of the older universities and their imitators. The gentleman in question, whose stature and greying temples might possibly suit the soubriquet 'distinguished', carries, to complete the caricature, a crook-handled school cane, the very same instrument, in fact, with which he has just inflicted the weals which he now inspects with such interest.
"Very well, Chalmers, you may stand up," he says calmly.
The youth complies. He has composed himself while his backside was so competently assessed; his eyes are reddened, but he is not openly weeping. Nonetheless, the stiffness of his carriage suggests that he is still in quite considerable pain. Pain or no, however, he understands perfectly well what the next step in the ritual must be.
He holds out his hand to his tormenter.
"Thank you sir," he says.
And this is the refinement that twists the knife.
Somewhere, even as you read this, a child is being beaten.
Consider the boy Chalmers, in his school, away from home and thrown into the fetid monkey troop of a boy's school, where the violence and passion of adolescence are fanned to a hothouse blaze. Here strength is glorified; here strength rules. Among the boys, violence is used in relatively straightforward ways to intimidate, to cow, to bind together. The adults, however, are more subtle, their violence more silken and more savage. They have, of course, more practice.
The boy Chalmers - consider him, post-pubescent, long-limbed, with the disturbing, androgynous beauty that some adolescents have - has been standing outside the headmaster's office for half the age of the world, while swamps became coal and strange flopping creatures gasping on distant strands have evolved lungs and limbs and brains that can conceive of the concept of time, of 'before' and 'after'. All these long aeons that he has been waiting, afraid, in the corridor, are part of 'before'. Everything, until the door opens and he is called in, is part of 'before'; everything, even the cold, precise delineation of his offences, the momentary wait for an explanation which he will not bother to give since he is well aware it will not be listened to (and indeed, the very offering of which would be considered to exacerbate his crime) - all this is part of 'before'. Before the thing which he has feared and so far managed to evade (for he is by nature a gentle, rather shy boy, and thus of no account in a society in which the gentle are the lowest of castes. Only his burgeoning beauty has now betrayed him to the attention of the powerful and brought him to this pass). Even the moment that the headmaster goes to the cupboard and removes the instrument of suffering, yes, even that is part of 'before'.
"Drop your trousers and underpants and bend over the desk." Ah, now we are reaching the crux, the moment, the instant of time that divides that long, shadowy 'before' from the bright and terrible glare of the dreaded 'after'. His hands shake as he fumbles with the buttons of his waistband, with the awkward belt buckle that just as in bad dreams seems inspired with a malevolent animation that thwarts his efforts. A small impatient sound from the headmaster seems to thicken the gluey air around his suddenly useless limbs still further, and it is almost with relief that his trousers finally fall about his feet and he pulls the regulation white briefs down with such haste that a fingernail catches on his side and he leaves a long scratch down his upper thigh.
And then he is standing, one long adolescent compound of shame and fear and humiliation, naked to the eyes of the man, and he bends over, ungracefully, laying his cheek against the green leather top that has supported generations of children as the rod came down, grateful for that solidity, grateful that at least he need no longer look at anything but the wood and the green leather with its gilded inlay, now almost entirely worn away.
There are movements behind him, stirrings of air. He jumps as the cane touches his buttocks very lightly - measurement. A dry chuckle. The headmaster is ensuring that the cuts will fall exactly where they are intended, across the meat of the two rounded cheeks that are presented for his view and (although he does not choose to admit this to himself in precisely these terms, preferring terminology such as "firm but fair" or "a traditional disciplinarian") for his very great pleasure.
And the cane comes down. The cane comes down, and nothing in Chalmers' world will ever be quite the same again. It comes like fire, like wind, like revelation, like something that sweeps the way clear before the coming of God. There has never been anything like it in his experience. Nothing could have prepared him for it, not all the jokes and stories and furtive examinations of other backsides that have known its passing. The pain is terrible, and he cannot help himself from crying out, and feels, somehow, even as he does, the frigid disapproval of the man behind him, who likes his boys to bear their pain with the stoical indifference to suffering (their own as much as others') that builds empires.
"Get up, boy" says the headmaster, at last.
It is over.
It is over, and now he enters upon the previously undreamt-of pastures of 'after'.
He is crying, silently, he cannot help himself, and the look on the headmaster's face as he beholds the tear-tracks is one of purest disdain.
"Stop snivelling, you wretched boy, and make yourself decent," says the headmaster, coldly.
"Yes, Sir, sorry Sir," gulps the unfortunate Chalmers. Wretched indeed. It is the sin which cries out to heaven for vengeance, the sin which is not forgiven. To blub, like a girl. To be weak. To be cowardly. He pulls up his underwear and cannot help but wince and make a little sound as the cotton brushes the welts on his backside. The headmaster notes the grimace with a flicker of sadistic pleasure that is all but submerged in annoyance at such effeminacy. As Chalmers is buckling his trousers, the headmaster is tapping his highly polished brogues with the end of the cane, a nervous tic that betrays his own irritation.
"Well, Chalmers," he says at last into the agonising silence that now stretches between them. "Have you not forgotten something ?"
Shamed, hurting, and somewhere, somewhere so deep down that he will not know it for years to come, helplessly angry, Chalmers hangs his head. He knows there must be some key, some gesture that will bring closure, end this terrible ritual for now, but he cannot seem to think what it must be. The silence tears at him like a tiger drawing its claws through his heart. Until suddenly a scrap of memory, a moment of overheard conversation blazes through his mind.
Eyes still on the parquet flooring, he mumbles:
"Thank you, Sir."
The headmaster lets out a short, exasperated breath.
"Is this the manner I expect from a pupil of this school ? This slovenly half-hearted - LOOK AT ME WHEN I AM TALKING TO YOU BOY ! - excuse for thanks ? I see your education has been sadly neglected, Mister Chalmers. Well, no matter, I shall make it my business to correct any such deficiencies. Be assured that when you leave this school, it will be as a credit to us. You will report to me each night this week at 6 pm, and I shall punish you for tonight's disgraceful behaviour. You will take your punishment like a man, and you will stand and look me in the eye afterwards, offer me your hand, and thank me sincerely. If you do not, I shall repeat the process until you do. Do you understand me ?"
His voice is a whisper, but a loud one.
"Yes, Sir." Then, because he is confused, and very afraid, he adds: "Thank you, Sir."
The headmaster's eyes narrow and he stares at the boy, searching for the least trace of defiance, of mockery. But even his hypersensitive eyes cannot see anything that will justify further punishment.
"You may go."
And he is stumbling from the room, his eyes red, his soul plunged into misery. It is not just the shame of having exposed the naked body, with the development of which he is, like many of his peers, deeply uncomfortable. It is not just the pain, and the pain which is to come (and how much worse will it be, he wonders, to be caned over the hardly healed tramlines of today's beating, a beating which the stickiness in his underwear tells him has probably broken the skin in a few places). It is not, even, the mockery of having to thank his tormentor. No the worst thing, the thing that burns like acid, is the knowledge that he is a failure, a blubber, a cissy. He has justified all the insults he has born, all the casual bullying. They were right about him, absolutely right, and he wonders how they knew. What Cain's mark does he bear on his brow, that it was so obvious to everyone but himself of what weak and unsatisfactory material he was made ?
Somewhere, as you read this, a child is being beaten.
And a young man, who has been bent over a table, places a tentative hand back, to touch, gingerly, the raised lines across his own backside.
"Wow," he says. His eyes are still red from the tears he could not quite keep back.
The older man smiles.
"I told you," he said. "It's quite an experience."
"It hurts like fuck," said the youth. "I couldn't believe how much it stings."
"It's supposed to hurt," observes the other, mildly. "And you did ask to be taken beyond your previous limits, and you did want to try the cane in a traditional scenario."
"Oh, I'm not complaining, believe me." Then he laughs. "Well, I was, but I freely admit that I got what I asked for, and then some. And I'll be fantasising about this for months."
"Good. But not too many months, I hope. I'd like to try a few variations. How would you like a good strapping first, followed by a caning ?"
"Oh my God !" The youth, whose own given name is not, of course, Chalmers, except in this place, in these scenes, these little playlets that lead always to a similar denouement, smiles with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. "Yeah. Maybe. God, right now that thought sounds terrible, but give me a week or two to think about it and I reckon I'll be on the phone."
"Good. Now let me put something on that backside of yours to soothe it, and deal with the broken skin. We don't want any permanent marks on that pretty little bottom, do we ?" His firm hand runs very gently over the curve of one cheek, and notes the stir in the younger man's crotch as he does so. The intimacies of the soothing afterward are as pleasing, in some ways, as the punishment itself. Though less necessary. If they want to be played with, or to suck him, he is happy to oblige; happy, no delighted, to go further and complete their subjugation by buggering their sore and upturned arses if that is what his playmates desire (and some do).
But it is the beating he needs and craves. The assertion of his power over those upturned buttocks, young and not-so-young, that seek his services through small ads in specialist magazines, and increasingly now, via the Internet. The ritual of it. The inevitability of it. The waiting, and the positioning, and the sarcastic remarks designed to emphasise to them just how helpless they are, how much in control he is.
Somewhere, as you read this, a child is being beaten.
And perhaps in the heart of the man who is known to his partners as "Sir" or "Headmaster" there is a child being beaten still. But Chalmers has learned the ways to deal with recalcitrant children. The cane that he so carefully puts away in his cupboard, together with his mortarboard and gown, is evidence of that.