It was the umbrellas that drew her attention. Big, beautiful, colourful umbrellas artfully arranged in the corner window. From across the street, it looked as though someone had frozen a rainbow and set it on display. Even through the scaffolding it was brilliant, drawing her closer. As Leah walked along the window, she marvelled at the effect as the umbrellas slowly elongated and lost their brilliant colours, seemingly morphing into the walking sticks that came next in the display as she moved along the window. She was about to turn away and continue her walk when she noticed it. It looked as though it may have slipped in by mistake, though if the careful arrangement of rest of the display was anything to judge by, nothing in this shop was left to chance. Tucked deep into the corner, hardly noticeable unless one looked closely, was an entirely different type of cane.
Leah had heard about such things, though had never seen one up close. She’d been born too late to have any first hand experience with them growing up, but she had heard enough stories from older friends to know that her timing was very fortunate. Her fascination with their stories of the dreaded punishments was tempered with the very real dread that not so long ago one could be forced into having such an experience.
All the same, she knew the windows had held her attention for far to long when she heard the snicker behind her. Whirling around, she cane face to face with an elderly woman who smirked and winked at her as she passed by. Terrified that a stranger may somehow be privy to her conflicted thoughts, she escaped without thinking via the quickest route possible: the door to the very shop whose windows had so enticed her.
The inside of the shop fit her expectations based on the windows. Filled wall to wall with an odd assortment of objects, it may have seemed cluttered if the arrangement had been less meticulous. Awed, she slowly turned about the shop admiring the wares. Much of the merchandise was mundane, but eventually she noticed the rack tucked discretely in the back of the shop showcasing a selection of canes. She marvelled at the various lengths and textures; it had always seemed a rather foreign concept to her, and therefore she had never given much thought to the potential for variety.
“Can I assist you?”
She turned quickly from the display, her elbow catching the corner of the rack and sending it clattering to the floor with an ear-splitting crash.
Leah started at the noise and stared open-mouthed at the chaos that ensued for a split second before snapping to cover her lapse. “You call startling your customers helpful? You could help by cleaning up this mess, or perhaps in investing in studier displays.”
“Apologies, madam,” the shop keeper offered. A man of short stature and a receding hairline, he was nonetheless accustomed to be treated with more respect by those who frequented his establishment. He bit back the scolding that had leapt to the tip of his tongue. It was clear that this young lady came from a rather different class than his usual customers, and might not respond well to the same ways of enforcing proper behaviour. “Though do take care in here; some items are rather fragile, and it would be a shame if I had to charge you for broken merchandise.”
“That wouldn’t be an issue if you had taken care to arrange things better,” she huffed back.
“I can assure you, madam, that a great deal of care has been taken indeed with the arrangements of my displays. I can also assure you that none of my customers have had any difficulty examining the wares if they, too, take a bit of care rather than flailing about the shop.” he cautioned as he righted the rack and began to gather the rods which had scattered across the floor.
“Well, good for them,” Leah replied, injecting her tone with indignant anger to hide her embarrassment.
The shopkeeper eyed her darkly and she quailed. “Do you know what these are for?” he asked as he replaced another cane on the rack.
Of course she knew, she wanted to spit back, though even she knew that particular response was asking for trouble. She opted for silence instead, wondering how she might extract herself from this conversation before it got. . . .
“They are instruments of education,” he said, almost lovingly into the silence that she had allowed to build. “Carefully crafted to deliver a most effective lesson. Young ladies like you could certainly benefit from their application.”
“Not in this century,” she replied sharply, despite her growing blush. “Whatever archaic antiques you peddle, no one in today’s world would seriously think of using those.”
“I beg to differ,” he offered, almost lightly. “Young ladies of a certain disposition find these instruments quite helpful in bettering their behaviour. I could provide a demonstration if you’d like.”
Leah gaped. Had he really suggested. . .?
“You chauvinist pig!” she spat at him when she found her voice.
He replaced the last rod and turned to face her, his lips pressed in a firm line. “You must realise that by throwing crudely-formed insults, you only lend credence to my point. You do truly need a lesson in proper behaviour, a lesson I would be only to happy to provide,“ he said with an ominous pause. “Otherwise, I must insist you leave this establishment at once.”
Leah stood rooted to the spot, gaping. She had only been curious. How had she managed to get herself into this situation?
Taking her hesitation for the acceptance it was, the shopkeeper retrieved a rod from the newly-straightened rack, firmly grasped her arm, and steered her into the back room. The room was small but organised, a combination office/storeroom judging by neatly-labelled the boxes that lined the walls and surrounded an old, worn wooden desk.
“Lift your skirt and bend over the desk. You have earned six strokes” he said. It was offered as a simple request, in the same tone he might use to state the total cost of a purchase when requesting payment.
Leah complied, as if in a trance. It must be a dream, she thought. This sort of thing doesn’t just happen. Surely, she would wake up any moment.
The cane swished and landed with a crack. For a moment, Leah’s dream-theory seemed to hold up. The noise was terrifying, but that was all. Then the pain set in- a line of fire that sparked and grew as she gripped the opposite edge of the desk and gasped.
“You are learning, I see,” the shopkeeper spoke as she caught her breath. He swished the rod through the air, making her wince as she anticipated another dose of pain that failed to come. “These instruments deserve your respect, a respect you have failed to show thus far today. I am sure that by the time we are through, you will not make this mistake again.”
She didn’t answer, so he let the cane continue the conversation with another viscous thwack.
“The cane is an excellent teacher,” he continued. “When properly applied, each stroke landing as the pain from the previous stripe peaks, the cumulative efffect quickly becomes difficult to bear.”
To illustrate his point, he delivered the next stroke just as he had described, eliciting a small yelp from Leah. He let her pant and absorb the pain thruogh several long, silent moments before delivering the next stroke.
Leah rewarded his efforts with a long, mournful, wet wail.
The shopkeeper smiled behind her back. “Is this worth it?” he asked. “Is this what you came here for?”
He let the question hang. With no answer forthcoming, he landed the next blow at the proper time. What she gave in return was a vocalisation, though it could hardly be considered a proper response to his question.
“You were intrigued, weren’t you?” he asked. “You knew what you were getting into, that much is clear. I have not needed to impress upon you the importance of remaining still, of keeping position. You have not argued or fought back in the slightest since entering this room. You are well aware of the importance of submitting to well-earned punishment.”
Leah wanted to argue, but her words caught in her throat. Had he really guessed so much? She started to correct him, to tell him his assumption was completely incorrect, but was cut short by the last stroke which silenced her denial.
He let her rest over the desk until her breathing returned to normal before helping her up and letting her adjust her clothing.
“You took your first caning very well,” he commended as he offered his hand.
She shook it, still trying to process the experience. Her first caning? As in . . . there would be others?
“You seem to take to this type of discipline quite well. It will do you good. Know that you can return whenever you need reinforcement,” he offered as he escorted her to the shop door. Entranced, she merely nodded as she stepped out into the sunlight.
As the door closed, she turned back. She wanted to argue, to stand up for herself. She was a grown woman, who did he think he was, offering something like that? Shaking her head, she flounced back along the walk past the windows. Best ignore it, she decided. Nothing had happened, she told herself. She would blot this afternoon from her memory and go on perfectly happily, never to return.
As she started to turn the corner, she saw the notice in the final window. It was small, plain and knee-height, but it drew her attention like a moth to a flame.
“Junior Sales Assistant?” she read aloud. Who in their right mind would want to “assist” in a place like that? A place with the threat of the cane looming quite literally over one’s shoulder?
Although, it could be an opportunity. A chance to show him that he was wrong. She could give him a piece of her mind, prove her competence. Yes, she would interview, be a model employee, responsible, mature, and everything. Prove him wrong about her. She certainly didn’t need any more of his lessons. If she worked for him, he would certainly see that. Mind made up, she turned back to the door to ask for an application.