The Punch and Judy Show
by Jolyon Lewes
It's been a magical summer in Southern England. The weather's really excelled itself. With a spring in my step I travelled down to the Kent coast last Friday to escape claustrophobic London and to see the seething masses at play.
There's something refreshing about watching people relaxing on the beach. For one thing, the sea air seems to swallow the stench of cheap deodorant that prevails where people gather in warm weather and for another, I can be anonymous – nobody knows me in Kent so I can be as scruffy as I wish, lick ice cream in the street, ogle the boys – things I cannot do in the rarefied world of the London auction house where I earn my living as a very junior art dealer.
So there I was, in a down-at-heel Kentish resort on the Thames Estuary, a sheet of water the tourism people euphemistically call the North Sea. I stayed for two nights in a chain hotel. The room was comfortable and Tom, the boy at reception, an absolute gem.
"Is there anything I can get you, sir? A taxi, or can I recommend a place to eat?"
"No thank you, Tom. I'll wander into town and for supper I'll take pot luck."
"OK, sir but when you get back, I'm on duty all night, so if there's anything...."
Oh, Tom, if only you knew. I'd like nothing more than to entertain you lavishly in Room 103, in my king-size bed.
On Saturday afternoon, after enjoying three or four pints of Spitfire Ale, I strolled along the esplanade. Then I realised I needed a pee. I'd reached a distant part of the resort where the beach was less crowded, the traffic negligible and the pubs less plentiful. I saw a public convenience and entered with relief. On emerging from the concrete structure I walked on, past rows of villas offering Bed and Breakfast and enticing potential visitors with the slightly worrying promise of hot and cold running water in all rooms.
Soon, the houses made way for low cliffs and I crossed the road to the beach. The people there seemed very old-fashioned. Girls wore not Lycra but jeans and blouses, boys wore short-sleeved shirts and not baggy, shapeless, cargo shorts but tight, denim cut-offs that reached nowhere near the knee or, for that matter, very far down the thigh. Children were building sandcastles, playing ball, chasing each other. Not an electronic toy to be seen. Somebody had a portable radio playing music from the eighties – Sweet Dreams, by Eurythmics.
There were teenage boys in trim little shorts of heart-stopping brevity, something I've never seen in London. Feeling pleasantly aroused, I strolled slowly along, enjoying this retro experience and keen to see what more was on offer. I saw a sign advertising a Punch and Judy show. I was in time to watch the 4 pm performance, the third of three puppet shows that day.
As a child, I'd always found Punch and Judy shows distasteful. I thought Mr Punch grotesque and his blatant bullying of his wife and his habit of bashing people over the head not just unfunny but distinctly sinister.
But all that was long ago. Maybe I'd now find some humorous aspects to Punch and Judy. My mind numbed by Spitfire Ale, I paid my pound to watch the show. Only a pound? There were five rows of metal-framed seats in fixed rows that seemed to have been salvaged from a long-demolished cinema. The upholstery was shabby and badly-stained and the seats were narrow, made to fit the slimmer customers of the post-war years. Still, I wasn't there for a three-hour epic so I took an end-seat in the back row and waited.
I was facing an odd-looking canvas-covered booth. Its lower part was the size of a garden shed and the second level, gaudy in red and white vertical stripes, was three feet square and six feet high, with a pointed roof, exactly as I'd remembered Punch and Judy stalls. Just beneath the roof was a little frilly-curtained, gaudily-painted proscenium. Seaside music, presumably from an ancient tape-recorder, issued erratically from a tatty-looking speaker projecting incongruously from the lower part of the structure.
The seats were filling, mostly with families with young children but as 4 pm approached I noticed more adults than children taking their seats. I felt a surge of excitement as two lads of about seventeen occupied the seats immediately to my right. The boy nearer to me wore pale blue shorts so brief that when he sat down his gloriously hairless thighs were entirely bare. I'd seen photos of boys in shorts like that but they were vintage 1980 and shorts so short must have quickly gone out of fashion. Were they still on sale in this odd little Kentish resort?
"I'm glad we're at this end," said the boy to his friend.
"Yeah, Simon, mate. Should get a brilliant view!"
A curious comment, I thought.
The awful music stopped abruptly and the little curtains were pulled jerkily aside to reveal the stage. Mr Punch appeared, in his traditional jester's outfit with pointed, tasselled hat. He was as grotesque as ever, the end of his long nose almost touching the tip of his jutting-out chin. I suppose the puppet was well over a hundred years old. The unseen puppeteer had one of those swazzle things in his mouth that made Punch's voice squeaky and raucous, like the noise made by a kazoo. It was supposed to be comical.
I watched as Mr Punch berated the audience and squawked about the weather. He waved his slapstick angrily and began the first of his traditional altercations with his wife, Judy. She didn't say much and just stood there while Punch bashed her about the head. The children in the audience screamed with delight. Once Judy had been dispatched a policeman popped up to arrest Punch for assault but he received an even more violent battering, much to the obvious delight of older members of the audience. Next to be whacked was a small, inert crocodile that was bashed until it broke in half, to cries of protest from nature-loving children.
For the life of me I couldn't see the humour in this show but it was interesting to watch the audience reaction and to gaze discreetly to my right, at Simon's beautiful, bronzed legs. I knew I'd enjoy such moments far more than the wretched Punch and Judy show.
Punch's next victim was a white-coated doctor who wanted to examine him. He held a gigantic syringe and tried to inject Punch with something but had it seized from him and stuck into his own arm. The audience seemed to find this hilarious and laughed even more loudly when the unfortunate doctor, now acting groggily, was knocked out of his senses by two mighty blows to the head from Mr Punch.
Now Mr Punch was alone on stage. He squawked incomprehensibly for a minute and then yelled "Where's the baby, then? Where's the baby?"
"He's bloody grown up, you wanker," muttered Simon's friend.
"Where's the baby?" screeched Punch, again. "You don't know? I'll tell you then – he's grown up and now he's a schoolboy! I'll go and get 'im."
The tape machine crackled into life and played a snatch of Teddy Bears' Picnic before stopping as abruptly as before when Mr Punch reappeared, now dressed in a black academic gown. On his head was a teacher's mortarboard and in his hand, inevitably, a small cane. Beside him appeared quite a large puppet dressed as a schoolboy, in school cap and grey, short-trousered suit.
"Here's Johnny!" shouted Punch manically. "Time for your test. What's three times six?"
"Eighteen, sir." The voice coming from the booth was that of a real boy, whose voice hadn't quite broken. He gave correct answers to a few more of Punch's questions.
"Come on, get on with it!" muttered Simon.
"What's twelve times fourteen, Johnny?" yelled Punch, menacingly.
This time there was a pause before Johnny answered "A hundred and eighty."
Crack! Down came the cane onto Johnny's head. He was ordered to try again.
"A hundred and sixty?"
Another crack of the cane on his head. "Ow!!"
Children were trying to help Johnny. "A hundred and sixty-eight!" they chorused.
But it was too late for Johnny. "Time for your caning, Johnny," yelled Punch. "Bend over!"
The puppet boy bent obligingly over, with his shorts-clad bottom facing the audience. Punch swung his cane and hit the puppet's bottom very hard. "Ow!!"
Swinging the cane back for the second stroke, Punch caught it on the top of the proscenium; it ruined his aim and he missed Johnny completely, although the real boy still went "Ow!!"
"No room to swing a cat here," squawked Punch. "I need more space. Shall I do it in my cellar, boys and girls?"
"Yesss!" Every child in the audience responded, as well as some of the adults.
"This is it!" said Simon, slapping his thighs excitedly. This made a delightful sound and I wished he'd let me do it next time; I'd be only too pleased to slap his thighs for him and then let my fingers linger ....
Tearing my gaze from Simon's legs, I saw Mr Punch and Johnny had vanished; the action had moved downstairs to the larger area of the booth. It seemed we were to be treated to sound effects only for this part of the show.
But what sound effects! The cane now sounded like a real one, swishing as it descended and making a loud crack as it hit its target. No longer was Johnny saying Ow!! but making the noises of a boy being really caned. We could hear an assortment of realistic gasps, cries and groans. Simon was getting highly agitated, rubbing his hands urgently up and down his thighs. He leaned towards me and as his shoulder touched mine I felt a frisson of excitement.
"Yeah, you can see 'im!" he whispered sharply and his friend leaned over until his head was on Simon's chest.
"Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to lean into you," Simon said to me. "When a gust of wind moves that canvas screen you can see the boy being caned!"
He'd called me sir! I could hardly have been two years his senior! I looked and sure enough the wind blew and the canvas sheets parted sufficiently to reveal the top half of a boy in grey shirt and tie, lying over a wooden bench, with his hands on the ground, bracing himself for what were clearly the cane strokes we could hear!
"Bloody hell!" I heard myself say. "Look, I'll lean left a bit so you can get a better view."
"Thanks," said Simon and his head nestled onto my right shoulder. His hair was tickling my cheek, which I found enchanting. I resisted the temptation to put my arm round and hold him even closer.
The caning had stopped, and some audience members began to boo.
"Alright, I can hear you!" screamed Punch. "Johnny's had six of the best. D'you think he deserves any more?"
The audience, to a man, women and child, (including me) yelled "Yeeesss!"
"Three more strokes or six?"
No reply was audible from Johnny when Punch gleefully told him he'd be getting another six strokes.
A gust of wind obligingly parted the canvas again and Simon, his friend and I could see Johnny over the bench, looking down at the ground. He had braces holding his trousers up. We saw a shadowy figure behind him, who must have been the puppeteer. We didn't see him wield the cane but we heard it and we saw poor Johnny lurch forward as the cane struck his bottom. His head jerked up and we saw his features contort in pain.
Annoyingly, the wind failed to oblige for the next four strokes but I now knew what was going on in that little booth and as if to confirm it, Johnny's cries became even more desperate. I noticed Simon had his right hand kneading the tent in his shorts and a second later realised my left hand had been doing precisely the same thing to the tent in my trousers.
"Look!" breathed Simon as the canvas parted again in time for Johnny's final stroke.
"Last one!" shrieked Punch and we all heard the swish and the crack as the cane buried itself once again into Johnny's bottom. Again I saw his sweet little face, now streaming with tears. Then the canvas took our view and we were left with the sound of adolescent sobbing.
"That's it, all over," said Simon, sitting upright again and still pummelling his crotch. "Thanks for letting me get a good view, sir. Fascinating, wasn't it?"
"Um, yes, horrible," I said. "And fascinating."
"Horrible but fun," agreed Simon, giving his legs another good rubbing and turning to speak to his friend.
I gazed admiringly at Simon's thighs. How I would love to have stroked that firm, golden flesh, smooth as a baby's bottom. I was torn from my reverie by Mr Punch, back on stage and still dressed as a teacher. He called for Johnny and up came the puppet, this time without his grey shorts, allowing the gasping audience to see red lines painted all across his bottom and the backs of his legs.
"Now then children, remember to work hard at school or you might end up like Johnny!"
The curtains closed and the puppeteer spoke in his human voice. "Right then, folks. That's it for today. Thanks for coming. We'll be here again next Saturday. My lovely assistant will soon be round with a bucket for any cash you can spare. Thank you!"
There was applause and some cries of appreciation. Most of the families quickly departed but several older teenage boys and some men remained in their seats, including the two boys to my right. Was this because their present state of arousal made them too embarrassed to stand up?
No, it was much more exciting – the puppeteer's lovely assistant emerged from the booth, now in a grey jacket and carrying a plastic bucket. It was the real Johnny! He wore a schoolboy cap but wasn't wearing trousers. Oh, but he was – he was in grey shorts that just peeped below his jacket. He wore black shoes and long grey socks up to his knees. He was dressed exactly as I'd been in my junior years at boarding school except, thank God, my shorts had extended rather further down my legs. Johnny looked fourteen or fifteen.
"If we stay here, he'll come over and show us the damage," said Simon, again rubbing those blissful thighs in what looked like a state of bliss.
Johnny passed along the rows of seats and people dropped money into his bucket. Eager eyes were surveying the backs of his thighs and I heard exclamations and cries of sympathy. His cheeks were blotchy with dried tears. When he reached our row I could study him at close quarters. His perfect face seemed somehow familiar. And what beautiful thighs – not a hair to be seen. I put a fiver in his bucket and he thanked me with a sad little smile. He leaned over me for the boys to put in their coins and I had a thrilling, close-up view of the red weals traversing his upper thighs. They weren't painted on like the ones on the puppet – they were real and looked very sore and Johnny kept rubbing them with his free hand.
As he bent further over to put his bucket in range of more hands offering coins, his tiny shorts, pulled tightly into his crotch by his braces, rode up to reveal, inches from my nose, a chunk of bare bottom. It was lavishly marked by the cane. I realised with a start that this had been his third show of the day!
"How much for a touch?" asked Simon.
"A pound a touch," said Johnny.
"Christ – I've already given you a quid. Will that count?"
"Here," I said, tossing a shiny two-pound coin into the bucket. "That's enough for you both to have a touch."
"Thanks very much, sir," said Simon.
While Johnny was having his weals stroked he picked up my coin and asked me what it was. He looked doubtful at my answer so I put another fiver in his bucket and said I'd like a quick feel.
He gave me another of his sweet smiles and to my utter amazement, I found myself stroking the backs of my fingers over a fresh weal on the crease at the base of his right buttock. Nearby were weals from earlier shows. I resisted a sadistic urge to pinch his bottom and make him squeal.
"You poor boy!" I said. "Here's another fiver."
The other boys looked at me as if I was made of money and Johnny gave me the sweetest smile yet, making my heart melt. Suddenly, I felt dizzy and felt I was going to faint.
My next memory is of the concrete public convenience where I was having another pee, the result of all that Spitfire I'd consumed. A police car siren was wailing. Emerging into the sunlight I looked around for the Punch and Judy booth but it was nowhere to be seen. I assumed the puppeteer had somehow bundled everything into the old Bedford truck I'd seen behind the booth and had vanished, with Johnny. I could see no sign of Simon or his friend. Seeing the police car parked nearby, its blue lights still flashing, I walked quickly away.
Back at my hotel, Tom asked about my day. When I mentioned the Punch and Judy show on the beach he looked puzzled. Showing me a town plan he asked me where I'd been. He looked even more puzzled.
"Map reading's never been one of my strengths," he laughed, wishing me a good night and assuring me with a saucy wink that if I needed anything ....
Lying in bed, after taking wine, I thought of Simon's wonderful legs, then of Johnny's sweet face and his poor little bottom. I couldn't get that Eurythmics song out of my head. Wondering whether Tom really meant what he'd said about fulfilling my needs I pictured him in Simon's blue shorts and spending the next day with me, a thought that I found immensely arousing. Before drowsiness overcame me I had the most amazing fantasy that Tom was in a grey, short-trousered suit, just like Johnny's, and being threatened with a cane by Simon, who wore nothing more than academic gown and mortarboard.
Next morning, Tom was off-duty, rather to my relief. I had to return to London later but first I had a mission. In the Tourist Information Centre I asked about the Punch and Judy show. The lady behind the desk couldn't help me, which I thought rather surprising but a man overheard my inquiry and beckoned me into an inner office. He showed me the town plan.
"Where did the event take place, sir?"
I pointed to the far end of the esplanade, to the location that had had Tom puzzled.
"Hmm," said the man. "That area was covered by a landslide last winter and it's been fenced off ever since."
"But I'm sure that's where it was...."
The man continued: "Twenty-five years ago there was a rather bizarre Punch and Judy man who operated there with a boy apprentice, dressed as a schoolboy. He was a very pretty boy, if you know what I mean and he used to get caned, as part of the show. It was all very odd but perfectly legal, in those days. By the way, the boy in question made good and went to Hollywood and became a star of stage and screen. He's pushing forty now. Here's his picture."
I was looking at the image of the young English actor whose every film has thrilled me to bits. His lovely features and scrumptious body drive me to frenzy and in the safety of my bedroom, encouraged by rumours that he's gay, I've spilt seed on countless occasions, imagining him to be cuddling up beside me. And now, in glorious reality, I'd been inches away from him and had even touched his gorgeous, bare bottom!
Or had I? What ghosts had I been with that afternoon? Had even Tom been a figment of my imagination? And what about Simon? I pinched myself to see if I was real. Well, I am real. I'm satisfied that what I saw and heard was real but from the last century. As I said at the beginning, it's been a magical summer. Watching on DVD my favourite film star in his nearly-naked scenes will be even more exciting now! I've actually stroked his bottom!
I'll always be puzzled by my seaside experience. And how did one of the most lusted-after young men in the world find his way to stardom from a life of having his pretty little bottom repeatedly thrashed, just to amuse (and arouse) the audience of a Punch and Judy show?
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