by Mike London
Published: Nov 27, 2016
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Every school-day at Langtree Hill School began with an assembly in the hall. Today was no different. The schoolgirls filed in, class by class, the more senior girls sitting on the long wooden benches that ran across the back of the hall and the younger girls on the benches at the front, nearest the stage.
The teachers, too, had their assigned places; most sat on chairs on the stage arranged around the large desk, behind which the headmistress sat. Normally, apart from a few books and papers with the headmistress's notes, there was nothing on the desk. Today, however, a straight length of kooboo rattan, thirty four inches long - the senior school cane - was lying there.
None of the schoolgirls, apart perhaps from one fifth form girl, noticed it there against the shiny brown surface of the desk top. In addition to the teachers on stage, two teachers each day, chosen by rota, stood in the aisles on either side of the hall, assisting in keeping order.
Assembly and morning prayers were treated seriously at Langtree Hill, and girls who were caught talking or even whispering in assembly were more often than not sent out of the hall immediately to stand in the vestibule, below the school clock. There, after an unpleasant wait of several minutes until all the other girls were back in their classrooms, they would find themselves having to lean forwards, their blue school skirts tautening across their rears, to receive one or two smart slaps from a plimsoll, delivered by a senior teacher or by Mrs Cornwall, the headmistress, herself.
Today, as the girls of 5A took their places, Maria Hunt seemed reluctant to sit down. She hovered in the aisle as the others sat down and then signed to Emma Richardson to budge up along the bench a bit, so she could sit at the end. Emma thought it odd, but quickly obliged. Maria had looked rather agitated throughout registration, she remembered, and hadn't said a word to anyone.
Now that all the girls were sitting down, the headmistress made her entrance. The girls, and all of the teachers, stood up once again as she made her way behind the large desk and sat down. Everyone, except the two teachers in the aisles, now sat down again, and the assembly commenced as always with Miss Bowler playing the piano and the singing of hymns.
Nothing unusual or out of the way took place until Mrs Cornwall rose to make the announcements. These were normally rather tedious and most of the listening girls were preparing to be bored. Some of the more perceptive, though, had spotted odd expressions on some of the members of staff on the stage and wondered if something was up. Maria Hunt, unfortunately for her, had all too good an idea of what was to come.
"I am sorry to have to tell you, girls," the headmistress began, "that one of you has let herself and all of you down.