When he was roused from his sleep by an insomniac neighbour's telephone call, the Headmaster at first thought it was some prank.
"What do you mean, there are people climbing the fence into the school?"
"Well, it's still too dark to see clearly, but something odd's going on. I think you should check."
"Oh, OK," the HM replied grumpily. He struggled into some clothes and went out into the cool, dawn air. He couldn't believe what he saw: there, clearly outlined against the pale sky, were four girls clambering over the netting and into the school. He waited until they had all descended safely and then emerged from the darkness. The girls froze in surprise.
"I don't expect you have any reasonable explanation for this," the Headmaster glared at them. They looked at their feet. "Very well, go to your dormitories. You can still get a couple of hours of sleep. I'll see you in my study at 9 o'clock." He stumped back into the school. The girls looked uncertainly at each other and then followed suite. None of them slept.
Nor did the Headmaster. In fact he was just finalsising the letters of expulsion when the Deputy Head, Mrs Winchester, put her head around his door.
"You're in early, Headmaster." He told her the story of the four girls, and that by mid-morning they would have left the school.
"May I sit down, Headmaster? Perhaps we should discuss this." And so she pointed out that, although the crime had been serious enough to merit expulsion, all four girls were expected to do well in the GCE exams. Indeed two of them were in line to win scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge respectively.
"I just think we should bear in mind how important these things are for the school's ratings. Are you sure we can afford to lose these silly young things?"
The Headmaster pushed his chair back, scratched his head, and took Mrs Winchester's point.
Nine o'clock found four very chastened girls waiting outside the Head's study. Mrs Winchester opened the door and invited Amanda in. "The rest of you wait out here."
"Oh God, I'm sure we're going to be expelled," Jennifer mumbled to the other two.
"Of course we are. Oh golly! What a mess!"
Thus, a few minutes later, they could hardly believe it when they heard the distinctive crack of a cane against a bare bottom. They looked at each other with mixed relief and alarm.
"Four! Five! SIX!" they whispered. "Good grief, they sounded like really hard ones!"
They looked wide-eyed at each other.
"Surely Amanda's already had six?" Before Jessie had finished the sentence, there was another loud crack from within, followed by a muffled cry.
"Oh no! How many's she going to get?"
Shortly after they'd counted to twelve, the door opened and the red, tear-stained face of Amanda appeared, clutching frantically at her bottom.
"Jennifer, you're next," said Mrs Winchester curtly. "Come in."
Sometimes being first really is much, much better than being last.
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