Shortly after the final lesson, the course broke up and the participants went their separate ways. Vicky and Amanda went first, leaving together in Amanda's car, rather pointedly leaving Ruth to phone for a taxi to take her to the station. Ruth was in no hurry and took her time packing, although, as she had deliberately travelled light in the first place, there was very little to do. She carefully wrapped the tawse she had won in some spare underwear and placed it at the bottom of her case, wondering as she did so just what use the shiny leather would be put to when next unpacked. Picking up the remains of the jar of Moon Balm which sat on the bedside table, she decided that she might as well take that too, although strictly speaking it belonged to the Priory. Checking that the top was on securely, she added it to her belongings in the case. Her packing completed, she closed the case and went downstairs to phone for the taxi.I suspect the large, cluttered desk will be put to good use, but I may be mistaken. We will have to wait a week to find out.
As she stood in the doorway, she heard Stephen coming down the stairs behind her. He was dressed in his full motorcycle leathers which creaked and rustled as he moved. Ruth smiled wickedly to herself, thinking that although he now cut such an imposing figure, she preferred to remember him as she had seen him the previous day, his shorts round his ankles, his big bare bottom stuck up in the air, ready to take the punishment she was about to give. She wondered if he pictured her in the same way.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye," Stephen began awkwardly. "I feel as if I've known you a lot longer than two days. Do you think there's much chance of us meeting again?"
He looked so much like a little boy lost that Ruth did not want to hurt his feelings. But she didn't want to encourage him either. One policeman in her life was enough to be going on with!
"I don't know. Perhaps. I sometimes go to police functions with my boyfriend, Tony Chalmers. Might you happen to know him?"
Stephen looked surprised, as if the idea that Ruth might already have a steady relationship had not occurred to him.
"Why yes, actually I do. I went through basic training with him before he got promotion and we got posted to different areas." He looked crestfallen. "Well, I suppose that's it then. I hope Tony realises what a lucky chap he is. What on earth are you going to tell him about us?"
"What about...us? Is there anything to tell?" Ruth could not resist teasing him, he looked so innocent.
"Well, I mean to say, Ruth, don't you think it might be a bit awkward? Won't you find it a bit embarrassing to tell him about this course anyway - what went on, I mean? If he were to find out what I did to you he might not be too pleased."
"Well, I won't have to tell him too much then, will I? Tony and I don't have secrets from each other, but we're both mature adults. He knows I'm a big girl now, and I make up my own mind."
Ruth tried to give the impression that, being as sophisticated as she was, she would have no difficulty whatsoever in explaining to the man in her life that she had spent much of two days bent virtually naked over a chair, exposing her private entrances to a group of complete strangers and taking part in practices on which it was hard to put a logical, reasonable gloss. In fact, she was wondering desperately just what the devil she was going to tell Tony.
"Oh well, that's all right then if he's that understanding," Stephen replied, with just a hint of irony? She wasn't sure. "Anyway let me give you my phone number, just in case."
Ruth grinned mischievously. "Just in case of...what?" she said, but before he could answer, the taxi crunched up the gravel drive. She took the opportunity to curtail the farewell scene and depart. Her last sight of Stephen was of him standing by his motorcycle, looking wistfully at the back window of the taxi. She gave him a wave as the car turned back onto the main road, and received a half-hearted raise of the hand in return. Settling back in the seat, she looked briefly at the card he had given her; a plain business card, bearing only his name and telephone number. She tucked it into her purse, without giving it a second thought, and began to relax, enjoying the pretty scenery en route. Rather to her surprise, the motorcycle did not overtake the taxi before they reached the station, so she assumed he must have taken an alternative route.
* * *
The next day, Ruth went back to work, and discovered that considerable mental readjustment was required in order to get herself back into her normal routine. At least Tony had been working late, and she had spoken only briefly with him on the phone to let him know she was back. Detailed explanations could wait until the evening which at least gave her a little more time to consider just what she was going to tell him.
The morning was a matter of catching up. Ruth took two classes and also had a lot of paperwork to take care of. Although Lillian Greeves had acknowledged her presence at morning assembly, she made no move to speak to Ruth until after lunch, when Ruth sat working on some papers in the staff room. She looked up as the door opened, to see Coral Browne, the secretary, enter the room.
"Ruth, I'm glad I found you. Miss Greeves would like you to go to her office. Whenever it's convenient, she said."
"Oh, OK, Coral, I can come now if you like. I don't have another class until after the break."
"Yes, that would be best, I think."
Knowing Coral quite well, Ruth sensed that there was something being left unsaid. Something that was troubling the secretary. She decided to probe.
"What is this summons about? Do you know?"
"Well, I think she wants to discuss your course with you. She asked that you bring your closing essay papers and anything else that you were given on the course." Coral was hesitant. "Ruth, tell me to mind my own business if you like, but was there something odd about that course?"
"Odd? How do you mean, odd?" Ruth's mind was racing. Although Coral could not have known, it was obvious that Miss Greeves suspected, no doubt based on her own experience, that Ruth might have acquired a souvenir from Damocles Priory. Why does she want to see my essay, I wonder? Putting the thoughts aside she listened to Coral's cautious answer.
"Well..." Coral looked doubtful, clearly wishing she had never said anything. "It's just that, since Lillian came back from her own course, she has been - well - a bit...strange. You know how lenient she has always been about discipline? Well in the few days you have been away, she has caned three pupils, two boys and a girl, and...' Her voice tailed off and her face crumpled into misery.
"What is it, Coral? You can tell me." Ruth had always looked on the young secretary as a friend, and now she put a comforting arm around the girl's shoulders.
"Yesterday I made a couple of silly mistakes. It was my fault, I know it was, I just wasn't thinking. I gave her a letter that I had typed, and there were some errors in it that I hadn't spotted. Then I put some papers in the wrong file, papers that she wanted in a hurry, and it took me ages to find them."
"OK, but that wasn't so terrible, surely?"
"When she told me off, Ruth, it wasn't like the kind of rocket she used to give. She said I had become terribly slack, and that I was representative of a lot of the behaviour among staff around here, and that it was a bad example for the pupils. She said she was going to change a few things in future. Then she told me I should watch my step - I wasn't so much older than some of the pupils."
"So? That is more or less true, isn't it?" An awful suspicion was forming in Ruth's mind but she was careful to allow Coral to finish her own story.
The girl was now clearly embarrassed. "She said that, if I didn't take more care, and I wanted to keep my job, " she hesitated, her face red, "that she would take the cane to my bottom, the same as the pupils when they step out of line."
Ruth eyes widened. "Oh, Coral, I'm sure she didn't mean that. She was just having a bad day. We all do that from time to time." Ruth was far from sure her reassurances had any substance but couldn't voice the truth to the worried secretary.
Coral shook her head. "No, you should have heard her, Ruth. I'm sure she meant it. Oh I love my job here. I know I make the odd mistake, but the cane? I couldn't face that."
"Oh stop worrying. I'm sure you won't have to. Especially if you take note of the warning and don't give her an excuse." Ruth smiled encouragingly. "Come on, let's go back to her office together, and I'll see what she wants me for."
She picked up her briefcase, which contained not only her essay from Damocles Priory but the gold-edged tawse, which she had decided to keep with her, rather than leave it around for Tony to find. She still needed some time to prepare her explanation of her possession of it, and of her on-course activities.
* * *
On arriving at Lillian Greeves's office, Ruth made one last attempt to reassure Coral, before knocking on her boss's door. Bidden to enter, she found Miss Greeves sitting behind her desk, which was strewn with all the usual papers and paraphernalia of her work.
"Come in, Ruth, do take a seat." She motioned Ruth to the chair on the other side of her desk. Accepting the invitation, Ruth placed herself in a rather formal, upright posture on the edge of the chair and waited, wondering what was coming.
"How did you find your course? What did you think of the Reverend Mould?"
Ruth thought for a moment before answering. She realised that Miss Greeves must know exactly what went on at Damocles Priory. She had, after all, attended the previous session of the same course. However, Ruth was slightly apprehensive, especially after what Coral had just told her. She wasn't sure how to handle the situation, and what it was safe to say without leading herself into some very deep water.
"It was...interesting," she began, warily. "I suppose I would describe the Reverend Mould as a little eccentric."
"Oh come now, Ruth, he's absolutely barking mad. A real psycho," Miss Greeves interrupted, laughing heartily at Ruth's discomfiture. "But that does not necessarily invalidate all that he says. I expect that you were asked to prepare a final essay as the last part of your course."
"Yes, I was"
"Then I would like to see it, please. I would like to know just what benefit you derived from attending the Priory. It was part of your career development at Educorp-West, after all."
Ruth blushed at this reminder of the reason why she had been sent on this course, and the traumatic interview she had had with Lillian Greeves in this very same office just a week or so previously. So much water had flowed under her particular bridge since then that it was easy to forget that she was still the same person and, as far as Lillian Greeves was concerned, still on probation. She opened her briefcase and handed over the essay, which she had stapled into a neat folder.
Accepting the document, Miss Greeves donned a pair of half-moon reading glasses and began to study the papers. Ruth remained silent and was made to wait for fully ten minutes while the headmistress read the essay from start to finish, then went back to one section and re-read it twice. Finally she put the essay down.
"I have to say I am quite impressed." Ruth's sigh of relief was almost audible. "You obviously spoke from the heart, as well as the head, when you wrote this. Can I assume that your experience of the Reverend's Action Learning technique played some part in this?"
"I suppose you could say that." It was Ruth's turn to smile, wryly, as she recalled the tangled emotions she had suffered, prostrate on her bed, at Damocles Priory, relishing the relief as the Moon Balm took effect before she began to write her essay.
"Which particular action did you, personally, participate in ?"
Ruth smiled at the coyness. "Do you mean which punishment did I actually incur?"
"I mean precisely that. I know that you took a beating of some sort, it is a central part of the Reverend's method. What implement was used on you?"
Ruth coloured up, partly at the memory still fresh in her mind, but partly because this interview was taking a disturbingly personal turn.
"I was birched, first by the Reverend Mould, and then by the only man on the course."
"Ah I see. I do indeed see. That must have made a very strong impression. I must say that I counted myself lucky to have only received the tawse on my course. The young lady who was birched on that occasion was quite severely emotionally distressed and certainly had my sympathy."
So, thought Ruth, I was right. You didn't just go to observe. The knowledge was, somehow, reassuring.
"If the Reverend Mould followed his usual pattern, "Lillian Greeves continued, " he will have given out certain souvenirs at the end of the course. Was this the case, Ruth?"
"Yes, he gave each of us something."
"I trust you have brought it with you. Show it to me, please."
Ruth felt unaccountably nervous as she reached into her briefcase and took out the tawse. Miss Greeves took it from her and placed it on her desk, then reached into her drawer and, to Ruth's surprise, produced a twin of the implement, which she placed alongside Ruth's trophy.
"What a coincidence! It seems that we both write a good essay when...er...appropriately stimulated." Lillian said dryly. She looked at Ruth sternly.
"Now to business. You will remember, I am sure, Ruth, that when I made the proposition to you that you should attend Damocles Priory, I attached certain conditions."
Here it comes, thought a worried Ruth. The sting in the tail.
"While you were away, I decided to put my own lessons into practice. I have begun a new regime of discipline at this school and, for one thing, I want to ensure that the kind of incident like the one involving you and the departed Mr. Fullerton is never repeated!"
Miss Greeves now had Ruth's undivided attention.
"I have decided, therefore, that the more junior members of my staff are as much in need of discipline as are some of the pupils. Your own rash behaviour demonstrated that, but I am delighted to say that your performance at Damocles Priory has at least been a partial atonement."
Partial atonement? Ruth's nerves were jangling.
"You may recall that I said you had committed two offences. One against the company; the other against me, which I chose to take extremely personally."
Ruth nodded, her eyes downcast, ashamed to have the subject raised again and fearful of where this was leading.
"Well, you have done well in making up for your sin against the company. You now have to decide if you wish to continue working for me."
"Oh yes, I do. I enjoy my job and my working relationship with you!" Ruth's outburst was desperate and spontaneous. All her old fears about losing her job were back again. Surely Miss Greeves would not go back on her word, not after what Ruth had gone through in the last week?
"I, similarly, enjoy our working relationship, Ruth, and I want nothing more but that it should continue. But there is a price to be paid, a fee to wipe the slate clean if you like. After your recent experience of Action Learning I think you know what it is!"
She looked at Ruth sternly, the direct eye contact making the young teacher feel like an errant child.
Slowly, Ruth stood up. She picked up her own souvenir tawse from the desk and handed it to her superior. Already she was unconsciously pulling up her dress.
"How do you want me?" she asked, softly.
54 minutes ago