The punishment cell

They’d left her alone. Here, in this room. Just her and the punishment frame, and the small pile of prison clothes that she’d removed, as instructed, and placed in a neat pile on the floor.

Watson had brought her here. The officer in charge of C Wing. The officer with whom she’d argued earlier in the day. (Why had she argued? Why had she been so stupid? Why couldn’t she turn back time?). Led her, handcuffed, down the long, silent, antiseptic corridors, unlocking each of the heavy doors in turn, locking them firmly behind her. Brought the girl who’d questioned his authority to the place where it would be demonstrated to her in such unequivocal terms.

Then left, without so much as a glance.

Ten minutes ago? Thirty? Hard to keep track of time.

Too long. Not long enough.

Her eyes kept glancing to the polished wooden contraption in the centre of the high, bare cell. Glancing, looking away, steeling herself, glancing back. The leather ties that would bind her ankles.

Looking away. Looking away. The smooth, dark wood over which they’d have her bend, the ties for her wrists on the opposite side. Looking away. Looking away.

She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. It was cold. So cold, sitting here, naked, on this solitary plastic chair. A single bulb hung above her, the only frail source of light or warmth in this lonely place.

She’d been caned on admission, as the magistrate had instructed to her shock and to cries of disbelief from her family and friends crowded into the tiny courtroom. Twenty strokes as she touched her toes in the prison’s reception room, between stripping from her own clothes and covering herself with the rough, ugly, government-issue uniform. Each stroke unbearable, for its pain and its shame, each marking her transition, her loss of freedom.

But today was different. No cane here. No mere Admissions Clerk. Any moment now: the prison Punishment Officer, bearing a birch. The birch, of which the girls whispered so reverentially. (Apart, that is, from those who’d received it: they fell silent, looked away, tried not to remember. Tonight, she’d become one of them).

They would flog her until they were confident that she would co-operate fully for the remainder of her sentence, they’d said. Until she understood that girls did not challenge officers. Until she was suitably punished.

Waiting, glancing, waiting.

Crying, softly. Wiping away the tears with the back of her hand.

Waiting, waiting.

And then, in the distance, the sound of a metal door opening and closing, and the clatter of boots on stone growing ever-closer…

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