Chronicles of Halden, I
- Auksford -
Chapter 4: Debagging
Copyright Robin Gordon
It was Johnny's power over other boys, his ability to hurt and humiliate any boy weaker than himself, and his ruthless lack of compunction in asserting his superiority, that had won Norah's heart. From the moment the eight year old Norah had been demoted by her boyish companions from brave to squaw and left to mind the tepee for a war-party who went out into the prairies and never returned, Norah had felt a burning rage against boys. She knew she was as good as any boy at all the things boys claimed as their own, but because she was a girl they regarded her as a lesser being. While the trousered males went off to conquer the world, she was left on the sidelines, marked as a softy by her skirts.
What could Norah do? She surrounded herself with a gang of girls as tough as herself, as tough as any boy and tougher than most. They reasserted their right to the playground. No skulking in girls' corner for the Blackburn gang. They skipped in the centre of the yard where the boys wanted to play football and defended their territory with vigour. They clattered through the marbles and blamed the boys for obstructing their passage. They taunted and jeered and pushed and shoved and proclaimed that girls were better than boys. Skirmishes and scuffles broke out wherever they met boys. The boys saw them as pests, but they made themselves more than pests: they were foes, foes on an equal footing, and whether they liked it or not, all the boys and all the girls were drawn into Norah's battle of the sexes.
Shirts were pulled out and skirts flipped up in the skirmishes. One group of boys made a blitzkrieg raid on girls' corner, sweeping through the squealing maidens pulling up their dresses and howling derision at the sight of their panties. Norah vowed revenge. Next day her gang seized one of the ravishers of feminine modesty and spreadeagled him on the ground. Norah herself demonstrated her complete contempt for him by squatting over his face as if about to urinate, and lowering the gusset of her knickers firmly down upon his nose. Released at last he stumbled away, coughing and spluttering, while the girls jeered at his discomfiture.
This was fine sport, until the leader of the boys, when his turn came to be snuffed, retrieved his honour and turned the tables on Norah by proclaiming to the world at large that he'd seen her knickers and they were pink with flowers on them. Enraged she sprang at him. He turned to flee, but her gang was too quick. Floored and helpless he could only beg in vain for mercy as Norah stripped off his short trousers and revealed to the whole school his white and shapeless undergarments.
His tearful flight to the shelter of the boys' toilets, while Norah brandished his trousers in triumph, marked the victory of the girls. From then on the boys avoided Norah when they could and deferred to her with scrupulous politeness when they couldn't. Those who were snuffed under her squat assured her they had kept their eyes tight closed and seen nothing. They suppressed their splutters and their coughs and thanked her for conferring her blessing on them. They were all terrified that if she thought them ungrateful they too might be publicly detrousered.
This time of triumph did not last long. School broke up for the summer, and in September they went their different ways: those who had passed the eleven-plus to the single sex grammar and high schools, and the others to the nearby mixed secondary modern. Norah and her bosom companions had just scraped into Halden Girls' High School, and they were delighted to have left the boys behind. The boys who went on to the secondary modern were equally delighted that Norah had passed to pastures new.
In her new, all female society, Norah had no competition. She could, when she chose, be the loudest and the most raucous, the pseudo-cock among the hens, the substitute bull in the china shop; and at other times she could be soft and feminine without feeling that she had an image of toughness to maintain. Her new life was not completely boyless, it is true. She saw them in the streets and on the buses, and the new rumours that were coming into her life made them seem to her even more alien and disgusting. That soft little finger-sized appendage that hung between their legs, that funny little dangler that she'd occasionally seen when they'd all played together as little kids, before she was cast out from her tomboy role, and never thought anything of - that, if the rumours were correct, grew at about the time a boy's voice broke, into a massive pendulous limb that could stiffen into a foot-long hard projection. When that happened a boy was overcome by lust and could not rest until he had attacked a girl and forced his thing into her body and made her pregnant.
Could such things be true? Were married women obliged to accept penetration by alien flesh if they wanted babies? Some girls said the man lay on top of the woman and forced his thing inside her then bounced up and down on her until ... until what? The rumours seemed to come from all directions, and though they conflicted in details, in the main they agreed. Miss Hardacre's hints and warnings to beware of boys, though never specific, seemed to point in the same direction, and they became ever more urgent when the local education authority decided to integrate the boys' and girls' schools as the first step to creating a comprehensive.
Norah was not pleased to find herself back in close proximity with boys in the third form. They were as noisy and over-active as ever, and quite as full of themselves. Her new male classmates had just graduated to long trousers, a few voices had broken and others were cracking - danger signs, as Norah knew. When they approached her with friendly words Norah knew what they wanted and spurned them. When, tired of her brusque put-downs they ignored her or laughed about her among themselves, she hated them. She longed to punish and humiliate them, she dreamed of squatting over their faces and snuffing them with her knickers, or, better still taking off their trousers and finding out if it were true about their things. But she knew that the scuffles and triumphs of ten-year-olds can't be repeated at thirteen or fourteen. The boys were stronger now, and Miss Hardacre's warnings of how they lusted to use their strength on girls, convinced her that discretion was the better part of valour.
Among the loudest and most raucous of the boys were Johnny Cowan and his gang. Perhaps Norah should have disliked Johnny more than any other boy, but though she hated boys, boys fascinated her, and he, as the most male of all her new companions, fascinated her the most. He soon realised that the way to impress her was to hurt and humiliate other boys, to prove his superiority by making them beg for mercy, and she, impressed by his ability to inflict pain on his victims without leaving any visible mark to draw the attention of authority, began to see in him a soulmate, one who would master the alien sex on her behalf. Through Johnny she could rule.
As for Johnny Cowan, he had always taken great pleasure in bullying, and with Norah and her girls looking on and jeering, the shame of any victim he could make cry was more than doubled. He soon realised that boys would pay almost whatever he asked to avoid such a humiliation. He was able to combine business with pleasure by starting a protection racket.
It was an opportunity that arose almost by chance, and Johnny seized it with both hands. Gary Wilson had offended Norah Blackburn in some way - apart from his mere existence as a boy that is - and she demanded that he be punished. The Cowan gang surrounded him after school and hustled him into a back lane away from prying adult eyes.
Gary protested, he snarled and swore. He called Johnny Cowan every dirty name he knew. Johnny, who had only intended a mild scragging, punched him several times in painful places where bruises wouldn't show to pay him back for his cheek, and twisted his arm behind his back. Dave pulled off his schoolbag and emptied it. Gary swore. Stanley slid his tie-knot hard into his throat. Gary choked. Stanley loosened his tie, then pulled it off. Gary spat in his face. Stanley swung at him. Johnny jerked him off balance. In a moment Gary was flat on his back on the ground with the gang kneeling on his arms and legs.
Norah looked down at him, snarling but helpless. "Snuff him?" she thought, but it was beneath her dignity, and besides no boy was getting a sniff at her jewel, but ...
"Hold him still!" she said, and knelt beside him.
As soon as he felt her hand on his waistband Gary began to whine for mercy. They jeered.
Norah jerked the two hooks open.
"N-O-O-O!" Gary squealed.
He was wearing button flies. If he'd had a zip she'd have had his kecks open and down.
"Lemme go!" he begged. "I'll do anything. I'll give you money!"
"Five bob?" said Johnny.
Johnny brushed Norah's fumbling fingers aside and emptied Gary's pockets: handkerchief, penknife, marbles, elastic bands, sweets, miscellaneous junk, and a few coppers.
"You've not gorrit!"
Norah couldn't get at his buttons with Johnny in the way.
"I'll bring it tomorrow."
"Not good enough," said Johnny. "Have to charge interest. Ten bob!"
He moved slightly and Norah got her hands on the next button.
"Ten bob! Ten bob!" yelled Gary. "Tomorrow!"
"Orright! But you'd best not forget. Not if you want to keep your pants!"
"Should've let me debag 'im," said Norah.
"You'll mebbe get the chance tomorrow," Johnny answered, but to her intense disgust Gary Wilson arrived with two half crowns, a florin, a shilling, three sixpences, a threepenny bit and three pennies.
"Good lad!" said Johnny with the utmost friendliness, and he took Gary aside for a private conversation.
"Norah's furious with you, you know," he said. "She says you pushed her, and she wants her revenge. Well you've seen what she's like. You know what would have happened if I'd not been there to look after you. Mebbe you'd like me to keep on looking after you."
"No thanks!" said Gary coldly.
"Oh well, suit yourself," said Johnny, but don't blame me if you meet Norah and her gang one day after school. Girls are not like us, you know. They bear grudges. They never forget. And they can do what they like to boys and we can't touch them. Quite sure you don't want protection."
"Quite sure," said Gary, but he didn't sound it.
"Well, I'd have thought," said Johnny, "that a lad with Norah Blackburn after his trousers could do with protection. Is it far to your house? Where d'you live? Aw yeah, you get the bus in Market Street, but I suppose you couldn't get the bus with no pants on. You could wait till after dark, but you have to cross Brook Street, don't you? And what would your Mammy say? Gary! Where are your trousers?! Debagged by girls?! Why? What did you do to them? You must have been annoying them! She'd never stop.
"What you need is insurance. Shilling a week, every Monday. OK?"
"OK," muttered Gary.
Colin Greatbatch had soon heard about Gary Wilson's fate, and he took good care to keep well away from the Cowan gang even though he was two years older. His friend David Little had been all for forming a vigilante group to restore order, but the other fifth formers thought the scuffles and disputes of lowly third formers beneath their notice. Time enough to think of disciplining their juniors when they were prefects.
In fact Cowan's protection racket stayed a very modest affair for the rest of the year. Only friendless weeds, or lads who offended the schoolboy code in some way, were picked on - almost legitimate targets. There was no indiscriminate bullying that might have brought reprisals, no challenge to equals or superiors. To Norah's disappointment the victims rapidly learned the rules of the game and agreed to pay whatever Johnny demanded, and he, with typical male indolence, didn't even bother with the most perfunctory of scraggings. A promise of regular small payments was enough to transform the victims into friends whom Johnny, far from persecuting, had promised to defend.
Norah was frustrated. Getting her hands on Gary Wilson's trousers had reminded her of the days when she was queen of the junior school, when boys deferred to her, respected her, obeyed her every whim on pain of being snuffed, and accepted their punishments with grovelling gratitude - and all because they were terrified of being debagged. That was her finest hour, when she had broken the proud spirit of the little gang-leader, when he had fled in tears, never to trouble her again, while she brandished in triumph the symbol of his broken boyhood, that unforgettable pair of short grey schoolboy trousers.
Norah nagged, Colin knew, nagged and whined and hinted and suggested and sniggered and nominated likely victims, so that never a day passed without her dropping into Cowan's mind the amusing prospect of symbolically emasculating one or other of their male schoolfellows by forcibly depriving him of his trousers. And it wasn't just the easy targets Norah wanted to see debagged, the little boys with treble voices and the skinny weeds who were as weak as water, but the strong, the loud, the dominant, boys as big as Johnny himself, or bigger. Even the sixth weren't safe from her speculations, but surely Johnny Cowan wouldn't dare commit such an outrage on a sub-prefect!
They stood in front of him, and Cowan's gaze moved slowly and speculatively from his face, down over his school blazer with its bright new prefect's badge and his sub-prefect's tie, down to his waist, paused on his trousers, then moved back up to meet his eye.
"Please, Greatbatch," said Cowan, and the deliberate archaism of his phrase seemed to carry within it a menacing irony.
"May we go now?"
Greatbatch gulped. "It's only half past four."
"I'll give you five bob if you let us go," said Cowan, holding out some coins.
"I c-c-can't." It was a bribe. A prefect couldn't accept a bribe. What if the Head found out?
"You drive a hard bargain," said Johnny. "I'll make it seven and six - but that's my last word."
Cowan's gaze again dropped. Colin flushed. He could see the Cowan gang eying his trousers, and behind them the rest of the detention class watching. Never had a school prefect been debagged. He'd be disgraced forever. The whole school would know. The whole school would laugh at him. He'd have to give up his prefecy. People would ask him why at his university interviews and he'd have to confess that the first detention class he'd ever taken had stripped him of his trousers ...
Cowan clinked the coins impatiently.
No-one would know if he took it ...
"See if the corridor is empty," he croaked.
It was. Cowan stuffed the money into his hand and they left. Slowly he put it in his pocket. The others were still staring at him. Suppose they told?
"That's ...," what was wrong with his voice? "That's all for tonight," he said loudly. "You can go."
Over the next few days Colin Greatbatch had expected at every moment to be denounced as venal and corrupt. He had expected the Headmaster's wrath to fall on him like a thunderbolt from heaven and strip him of his sub-prefect's badge and tie. He expected to be hounded from the prefects' study, cast out perhaps from the school, expelled with ignominy. When nothing happened his fears diminished, then returned with renewed force: they were preparing some special doom for him, a punishment that would make an example of him so that generations of schoolboys would remember what happened to the only prefect ever to take a bribe. He'd be called on to the stage at assembly. The Head would denounce him before the whole school. His tie would be removed, his badge cut and ripped from his blazer. Then he'd be flogged - before the whole school - probably trouserless.
As he lay sleepless in his bed at night, alone and with no distractions to keep him from his fancies, he imagined horrible headlines:
He would be expelled, of course. No university would look at him. His journalistic career was gone, vanished in a puff of smoke. He would have to take a job in a factory, on the conveyor belt if they'd have him, or sweeping streets. Sometimes his fancies would take a more bizarre turn. His parents would plead with the school to keep him, and the Headmaster would agree, but only if his disgrace was plain for all to see. He would return to complete his A-levels dressed in the yellow-braided blazer worn by the junior forms to show his lowly status, and, worse still, in short trousers. People would laugh at him in the street as they laughed at his cousin, Hugh. He would be hounded around the schoolyard by mocking third and fourth formers. If only he had stood up to Cowan. If he'd been detrousered he'd have lost his prefecy, but he'd still have been a sixth-former, and he'd have been able to say to the Headmaster, "Yes they took my trousers and humiliated me, but I'd rather suffer that than shame my school by accepting a bribe." But he'd funked it, so he'd be punished, debadged, flogged, degraded, demoted to shorts, mocked, badgered, hounded, ragged, scragged, and - without a shadow of doubt - repeatedly and shamefully debagged.
That none of this happened and that, apparently, no word of his acceptance of the bribe ever reached anyone in authority, was entirely due to the influence of Johnny Cowan - or so, at least, Cowan told him. Greatbatch had to believe him, and he had to believe that if he offended Cowan the authorities might just happen to hear something. He had to be prepared to do the odd little favour for the fourth-form gang-leader, and, rather to his surprise, every little favour received a little reward - and every reward entangled him further in the mesh.
For Johnny Cowan it was money well spent. With this guarantee of immunity in his pocket he was able to expand his business empire. Sporadic forays to collect money from selected weeds and wimps could now be replaced with the systematic collection of protection money from every boy in the lower school. There were enough of them to provide him with a very nice income without any need to antagonise the lads in his own year. Girls, of course were immune. Johnny's sense of chivalry would have made him feel it demeaning to harass the weaker sex - and Norah would never have allowed it anyway.
With all this in mind Colin Greatbatch feared the worst when he sought out Johnny Cowan. If, as he suspected, the Cowan gang was responsible for the rape of Amanda Miller, nothing could save him from the investigation of their activities. The bullying would emerge, the protection racket would be discovered, and his own miserable part in it brought before the merciless light of day. All his fears and fantasies were crowding in to his mind: the public debadging and degradation before the assembled school, the shameful unbreeching and leathering of his posterior, expulsion from the school, and the report to every university in the land, "Have nothing to do with Greatbatch, he took bribes to help a gang of bullies run a protection racket."
To his surprise Johnny Cowan knew even less than he did. Gasps of astonishment greeted the news than an actual rape had taken place in the school, in the shrubbery near the canteen, not more than a few yards from the field where the Cowan gang had been hanging about in boredom, completely unaware of the fascinating piece of depravity that was taking place practically under their noses. Colin asked the gang to keep the news to themselves. He knew they wouldn't but he felt fairly confident that Cowan wouldn't risk his tame prefect's reputation by letting people think that he had spread the rumours.
The brief meeting in a back lane near the school a few minutes later was disappointing. All Colin could do was to confirm that the Headmaster, Mr Lawrence and Miss Hardacre were in a flap about something, but he couldn't tell Winston anything he didn't already know. But if there was no new information from inside the school there was a rich vein of rumour outside to be mined, and an inspired call to Miss Hardacre brought its own reward. She may have had her faults and would have been the first to admit them, but she was not a woman to let things get out of proportion, whatever the odious Mr Lawrence might say, so a judicious exaggeration by Winston brought both denial and confirmation.
"There is no question of an orgy of beastliness such as you describe!" she snapped. "One little girl has been raped by two young thugs. That is all. It is more than enough. Do not phone me again!"
Winston fingered his ringing ear and smiled in triumph.
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Chapter 5: Evening conversations
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