As a special way to begin the new year, I have decided to serialize Zoe Templeton's story, A Master of Discipline, for the weekly Top Shelf feature. I hope you enjoy it.
Ruth Jamieson's day started badly. First, she discovered that she was almost out of breakfast cereal and was forced to make do with half a bowl of crisp cornflakes topped off with the crushed remnants from the bottom of the packet. She poured on the milk and wrinkled her nose in disgust at the resulting sludge. Then the toaster went wrong and produced two brittle charcoal biscuits, one of which broke up in her hand and showered her in marmalade and crumbs. She flapped frantically at the front of her dress with a tea towel, then resigned herself to the inevitable and went back upstairs to change.Wasn't that a fine beginning? We'll see how the culprits are dealt with next week.
She knew that she was late; even before breakfast she had been cutting things fine, but the enforced change of clothes made things worse. Glancing at her watch, Ruth launched herself down the stairs two at a time. She paused momentarily to check that the back door was locked, then grabbed her briefcase and made a dash for her car. The front door slammed shut behind her. She jumped into her car and twisted the key viciously in the ignition. The car was in gear and rolling forward, with the clutch almost fully engaged, even before the starter had finished whirring.
Her haste was almost her undoing. As she poked the nose of the car out into the main road, there was an angry shout. A paper boy on a cycle veered into the centre of the road in front of her, almost falling beneath her wheels. An oncoming car swerved, narrowly avoiding the nose of Ruth's car protruding into the road. The paper boy shouted something obscene as he gathered himself up, and Ruth lip-read a similar expletive from the driver of the car.
Steady, girl, or you won't survive long enough to get to work at all! Ruth often spoke to herself in times of stress. It was a habit she had got into as a little girl. As she grew older, the cruel taunts of her schoolmates, who sometimes overheard her talking to herself, had taught her to remain silent. Even so, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight she sometimes still found herself holding a silent conversation with that 'other Ruth' who lived at the back of her mind.
Oh shit! That's all you needed, she told herself, as the familiar blue and white body of a police car drew to a halt on the opposite side of the road. The officer had obviously seen her ill-judged attempt to enter the traffic stream and was determined to have a word. He got out of his car and strode across the road. An imperiously pointed finger was sufficient to halt the traffic, allowing him to walk purposefully towards Ruth's car.
"In a bit of a hurry, aren't we, miss?" he enquired, his voice heavy with that mixture of sarcasm and officiousness that traffic police the world over are so very good at.
"I'm ever so sorry, officer. I really didn't see him. He must have been cycling on the pavement." Ruth knew the excuse sounded feeble as soon as she said it, but she had nothing else to offer.
"That may well be so, miss. But that does NOT mean you can go charging out of your gateway without looking, now does it? Even without the cyclist, you weren't giving the other car much of a chance, were you!"
"I suppose not, officer. Look, I really am terribly sorry, but there's no harm done. It was only a momentary lapse and I promise most sincerely it won't happen again." Ruth hated having to crawl, but knew it was the only way she might avoid getting a ticket.
" 'Sorry' doesn't mend broken lives though, miss!"
Oh bloody hell! He's going to make a production number of this, I know he is. What am I going to tell Tony? Ruth's concern was not for the penalty of the traffic ticket, with its accompanying fine and penalty points, but rather the explanation she would have to give her boyfriend, Tony Chalmers, who just happened to be one Inspector Chalmers of the local police force.
"Don't I know you, miss?" The voice was sharp.
"No, I don't think so."
"I do, you know. I've seen you with Inspector Chalmers, haven't I?"
"I.er..well, you could have done. He's my...he's...er...a good friend of mine." Damn! That means he'll probably tell Tony before I can.
"I see. Well look here, miss. I don't want to appear too heavy-handed, and as you say there is no harm done so I suppose a caution will fit the bill. However I must tell you that if ever I have cause to remark about your lack of proper care and attention again, miss, I would take a very dim view of it, if you catch my meaning!"
"Oh yes, officer. I really will be more careful in future, I promise."
Heavy-handed! The words made the hair on the back of her neck bristle. Ruth shivered as she remembered conversations with Tony on the subject of her driving. She was undeniably a scatterbrain behind the wheel and several times he had threatened to take her across his knee for a good spanking, to improve her concentration.
The first time he had voiced the threat she had been a little shocked, finding the idea of being struck by him completely alien and contrary to the liberal fashion of her upbringing. However, when he had repeated the threat, she had begun to fantasise about how she might feel if he ever put his words into action.
The last time the subject had come up was when she had narrowly avoided a parking fine. Then he had reinforced his remonstration with one, not so gentle, slap across her rear. Alone in bed, later that night, she had pondered over the sensations which still lingered in her bottom. The faint residual tingle, from the sharp contact of the palm of his hand on her tightly stretched denims, stirred her imagination. The more she imagined, the more the tingle spread and grew in intensity. Eventually, after an hour of tossing and turning, unable to get to sleep, she had been forced to seek satisfaction with the little plastic toy which she kept hidden in a drawer full of clothes in her bedroom. Tony knew about her toy, but did not altogether approve of it. The mild sensation of guilt this knowledge gave her added spice to the pleasure, as she finally slipped into blissful sleep.
"All right then, miss, I'd better just see you safely on your way." The officer's voice jerked Ruth back to reality. The policeman's head withdrew from the car window and she managed a sickly, simpering smile as he held up the traffic and waved her out of the driveway. How she hated being treated like a brainless child!
Ruth fumed over the incident all the way to work, unwilling to admit that it had been entirely her own fault, whatever the voice at the back of her mind might say. She turned the car into the school gateway a full twenty-five minutes later than she should have done. Her temper was not improved by the sight of Edward Fullerton, the deputy head, watching her from his office window.
Generally speaking she enjoyed her job with Educorp-West very much. When education in England had finally been given the dramatic shake-up it so desperately needed, in the early years of the twenty-first century, Educorp-West had been one of the several regional companies formed to take on the newly privatised system. Encouraged by the new work ethic which swept the country, the new companies were a great success, swiftly recruiting a new breed of well-paid, highly motivated, fast-track teachers. Ruth was very proud of the fact that , even though still in her twenties, she was a senior assistant mistress at North Cliff School, one of Educorp's showpiece establishments.
She got on well with her boss, Lillian Greeves. The one black spot in her otherwise satisfying professional life was Edward Fullerton. The school, a co-educational establishment, was run jointly by Miss Greeves and Fullerton. Although technically the senior, Miss Greeves was content to give Fullerton full equality in most matters; allowing him to run the boys section of the school almost as if it were a separate enterprise. Unfortunately, he did not return the courtesy. He made no secret of his resentment at being nominally only the deputy head. Although powerless to vent his frustrations on Miss Greeves directly, he did the next best thing by trying to make Ruth's life a misery.
Because she was so late, all the car-park spaces at the front of the school were taken and she had to drive round to the overflow park at the rear of the building. Ruth knew that she was too late to attend morning assembly; her late arrival on the stage with the other staff would be noticed and would cause more comment than if she simply did not appear at all. As she made her way directly to the staff room, via the back door of the building, she did wonder why Fullerton himself was not at assembly.
She was just passing the gymnasium when she heard a noise coming from the girls' changing rooms, which were on the other side of the corridor. She paused, listening. No one should have been in the changing rooms at that time; all the staff and pupils should be in assembly. She opened the door and peered inside. All seemed in order. "Is anyone there?"
She knew as soon as she said it that this was the classic daft question and was not unduly surprised when she did not receive and answer. However Ruth was not no naive as to think that this silence confirmed that all was well; she had been involved with high-spirited youngsters long enough to know better than that. She stepped fully into the room and instantly confirmed her suspicions. The smell of tobacco was unmistakable.
There was really only one place anyone could be hiding and that was in the showers. The shower room comprised a 'wet side', a row of shower cubicles ranged along one wall, and a 'dry side', the main changing area. The two areas were separated by a plastic curtain , which Ruth now slid back quietly. Sure enough, there was a dark shape visible through the frosted glass of the far cubicle.
"OK, come on out. I can see you, so come out here now!"
After a brief pause, the cubicle door was pulled back and a rather shame-faced teenager emerged. Ruth was very surprised by the identity of the culprit. She had expected it to be one of a small band of regular trouble-makers she knew well. These were mostly sixteen-year-olds from the fourth and fifth forms. Instead, she was confronted by the tall and strikingly good-looking form of Nicky Shaw.
Although Ruth had no favourites in the sense of giving preferential treatment, Nicky Shaw was a girl whom Ruth enjoyed teaching. Bright as a button, she clearly had a brilliant future in front of her, whether she chose to make use of her academic prowess or simply capitalised on her abundant good looks and charm. At eighteen years of age, she was very mature, visibly more of a woman than a girl.
"Nicky, I'm surprised to find you here. What are you up to?"
Before the sheepish-looking girl had time to answer, Ruth realised that there was a second shadowy figure still concealed in the shower cubicle clearly hoping not to be noticed.
"Just a moment," Ruth snapped at Nicky, "there is someone else in there too. Come out at once!" The tone of her voice carried an authority which she did not altogether feel.
"Oh please, miss," Nicky began, "we weren't really doing anything."
"Be quiet, girl. I will talk to you in a moment. First of all I want to see just who I am talking to. Come on out, I said. And I mean now!"
Hesitantly a second figure emerged from the shower. Ruth was even more surprised to find that her second discovery was a boy or, to be accurate, a young man.
"Robin Henderson! What is the meaning of this?"
Robin Henderson was the same age as his companion and Ruth knew that he had an equally bright future, but she had never been able to look on him in the same light as Nicky. He was over six feet tall and very well-built. He excelled at games, as well as in his schoolwork. Everything came so easily to him, including money from his exceptionally rich parents. Really, that was the trouble; he made no secret of the fact that life was easy for him.
Ruth was not too surprised that Nicky had developed a crush on the boy, despite his manifestly over-developed ego. If she was honest with herself, Robin Henderson was a very dishy young man. Despite the age difference between them, Ruth admitted to herself that maybe she was a little jealous of Nicky. Ruth could imagine herself having very unwholesome thoughts about the burly young athlete, if only he were a little more modest.
She brought herself up short. Start thinking like this and you will very soon be out of a job, she told herself. The fact that she had such thoughts increased her anger. Anger with herself for her early morning stupidity and anger with Edward Fullerton, who would have to become involved now that she had discovered the hiding pair. She just knew Fullerton would insist on dramatising things and escalating the incident out of all proportion. It was just going to be one of those days!
She looked at the two pupils, Robin openly defiant and Nicky staring at the floor in embarrassment. "I think you both know that I have to report this," she began. "I know that you have both been smoking, the smell in here makes that obvious. The fact that the girls' changing room is out of bounds to you, Henderson, makes this a more serious matter, and I am afraid I have no alternative but to report the matter to Miss Greeves and Mr. Fullerton.
"Do-do you have to, miss? Please, we were only having a quick smoke, and we are both old enough - our parents don't mind." Despite looking the more embarrassed of the two, Nicky was doing all the talking.
"I'm afraid I do, Nicky. I have no alternative. Now both of you be on your way. Go to your classes. I have no doubt that you will be sent for later." Ruth stepped to one side and the two teenagers headed for the door. She watched them separate and go in opposite directions down the corridor before she picked up her case and resumed her journey to the staff room, deep in thought.
Ruth decided that the best thing to do was to report her discovery to Lillian Greeves as soon as possible, so she went directly from the staff room to the headmistress's office. She entered the outer office and began to explain her visit to the head's secretary, Coral Browne. Coral was a girl of about Ruth's own age and the two got on well together.
"I'm sorry, Ruth," Coral said, smiling apologetically, "but you can't see Lillian. She is away today and tomorrow on some course or other. I don't know where exactly. She was very mysterious about it, actually."
Ruth felt her spirits sink. That meant she would have no support in dealing with Edward Fullerton. As if on cue, the door opened behind her and the deputy head appeared, looking every bit as slimy as usual.
"Good morning, Miss Jamieson, Miss Browne," he began. Ruth turned to face him. He did not cut a very imposing figure - he was only an inch taller than Ruth's own five feet eight inches and as thin as a rake. He had a sallow complexion and lank brown hair draped in long straight locks across the top of his skull.
"I could not help noticing your late arrival, Miss Jamieson." His voice had a slightly nasal twang which irritated Ruth, no matter what the man was saying.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Fullerton, I had a bit of a problem with my car this morning."
It won't do any good to let him know that the problem was me and not the car, she thought to herself.
"That is as may be." He made it sound as if he didn't believe her in any case. "But I also noticed how long it took you to get to the staff room from the car park. I cannot help feeling that you are not demonstrating the requisite enthusiasm for the job."
Ruth's anger rose; she hated being spied on, and his criticism of her in front of Coral Browne was outrageous. "If you must know, I was delayed en route."
"May I ask by what?"
"I was here to tell Miss Greeves...but as she's not in school, I will tell you." Ruth made it clear by her tone that Fullerton was very much her second choice! "I found Nicky Shaw and Robin Henderson in the girls' shower room. They had been smoking."
It was Fullerton's turn to register surprise, then annoyance. "This is most serious. In the girls' shower room, you say? May I ask if their clothing was in place? Or in any kind of disarray?"
"They were clearly very surprised to be found." Ruth considered her next phrase carefully. "But that is all." Smoking by pupils was viewed as a serious offence at the school but paled in comparison to sexual misconduct. While she was not prepared to turn a blind eye to smoking, Ruth was not vindictive enough to encourage Fullerton down the path his mind was clearly leading.
"I see. Well I will have to pursue my own line of enquiry. It will have to be this morning."
"Why?," asked Ruth. "What makes it so urgent?"
"In Miss Greeves' absence, I will have to assume full responsibility for the conduct of this school until she returns."
Ruth's worst fears were confirmed. She knew immediately that this was going to be bad news. Fullerton would do his best to dramatise every minor incident in order to exercise his new-found power.
"Well, Mr. Fullerton, I must ask you to excuse me now. I have a class to take."
"Yes, yes. I will send for you when I need you."
I hope that's never, thought Ruth as she gratefully made her escape, although she guessed she would not be so lucky.
Sure enough, only an hour later she was summoned to Fullerton's office.
"I have completed my enquiries," he said, puffed up with self-importance. "It was as I suspected; they were up to no good."
"Really? What were they up to?" Ruth could guess the answer, but she was challenging Fullerton to voice and outrageous conclusion so that she could refute it, and thus mitigate the punishment which the two pupils were undoubtedly facing for their breach of school rules.
"At first, I determined that both of them had been smoking."
Ruth had to stop herself from saying 'Very clever - I told you that' but there was obviously more to come.
"I made further enquiries of course. During the course of those enquiries, the boy, Henderson, was quite disrespectful. I also detected that he seemed to have dressed hurriedly by the look of his apparel." He looked accusingly at Ruth, obviously inferring that she should have mentioned this in her initial report of the incident. "So I strongly suspect that considerably more than smoking went on but, despite my questioning, neither of them would admit to anything more."
"So what action do you propose to take?"
"I suppose that, lacking firm proof, we can only remonstrate with them for being too casually familiar with each other in a public place." Ruth almost burst out laughing at his pomposity. "However they are not going to get away lightly. The smoking is another matter and so is their rudeness. I am going to cane the boy and I must insist that the girl is also given the cane!"