It all came about because of a last minute change of plan. I had arranged to go on holiday with some friends — we were intending to rent a villa between us on the Côte D’Azur. But, only a few days before we were due to travel, Steve’s father was suddenly rushed into hospital with a heart attack and he had to cancel. Steve’s boyfriend wanted to stay with him, naturally, and that ended up putting the kybosh on the whole venture. I was left (along with two others) having to make alternative plans at short notice. So it was that, instead of sunning myself in the south of France, I had to make do with a fortnight alone on the South Coast of Blighty.
As it happened, the weather on that first day was almost as good as I could have hoped for at my original destination. I checked into a guesthouse by the seaside (one of very few still sporting “vacancy” signs for that time of year). It was mid-afternoon, so there was still plenty of time to get down to the beach and, after dumping my stuff, that’s exactly what I did.
While I was strolling across the sands, trying to find a suitable spot to claim for myself (it was understandably crowded), my mobile rang. I reached into my back pocket to retrieve it. By misfortune, and completely without my realizing it, the phone must have caught up on some debris and dislodged it. The caller turned out to be Steven, phoning to keep me updated on the latest news and find out if I was enjoying my holiday, despite the unexpected change of location.
While I was talking I was watching a couple of surfers out on the break, evidently having a great time. I longed to be out there with them and made a mental note to see if I could find a place to hire the gear and arrange some lessons for the following day.
“How’s your dad?” I asked Steve.
“Better — he’s out of intensive care at any rate. They are going to keep him in for a few more days, though.” One of the figures on the horizon wiped out badly, crashing headlong into the surf. Despite the sunshine, the water probably still hadn’t warmed up yet — too early in the season. I bet he’s glad of that shortie wetsuit, I thought.
“Good, I’m glad. I hope he’s allowed back home soon.” My attention was drawn to another wetsuited figure coming along the beach, carrying what looked like a bin bag. What was notable about it was the unusual colour of the suit — bright green!
“How’s the holiday?” Steve wanted to know.
“I’ve only just got here,” I pointed out. “The sun’s out and it’s a sandy beach. It might not be France, but I think I’m going to enjoy it here anyway.”
After exchanging some further pleasantries I ended the call and put the phone back in my jeans’ pocket. A bloke in an official-looking uniform came up to me.
“Is this yours?” he asked, holding up the used portion of a train ticket and a handful of sweet wrappers. I scanned the station of origin printed on the ticket.
“Yes,” I replied, thinking I must have dropped it and he was helpfully returning it to me. “Thank you. Sorry — it must have fallen out of my pocket.” He seized on this explanation.
“That’s what they all say. I’m afraid I’m going to have to detain you for littering.”
“Look, it was an accident, it wasn’t intentional; I’ve apologized — it won’t happen again.”
“Not good enough, mate.”
“You can’t be serious!” But like petty-minded bureaucrats everywhere, he was. He made me walk with him ten yards or so to the sea wall and pointed out a sign attached to it listing the various local byelaws against graffiti, antisocial behaviour and dropping litter, and threatening dire consequences to those who failed to take heed. Apparently, the Town Council had recently decided to have a crackdown on day trippers who left their rubbish behind on the beach, hence this power-crazed zealot patrolling the foreshore. It was simply my bad luck that he’d been in the vicinity when my phone rang. I repeated my position, considering it grossly unfair. “Don’t be ridiculous!” I exclaimed, but he was having none of it. In fact, he summoned a policeman from the promenade. The long and short of it was I found myself being arrested!
The next thing I knew I was being hauled up in front of the local magistrate for breaking byelaw 6. Since they had the testimony of a Council employee and a witness (some passing do-gooder, no doubt) and I’d admitted that the train ticket was definitely mine, technically they had me. In the circumstances, I thought it better just to plead guilty, accept a £50 fine (with ill grace) and that would be the end of the affair. For some unknown reason, the JP hearing the case thought I was being arrogant about it and imposed the heaviest penalty he could.
“You will go to prison for twenty-eight days,” he announced. I was stunned; it sounded extraordinarily harsh for something that was so completely trivial a matter. The Clerk of the Court attracted the magistrate’s attention and there was a whispered confabulation between the two. The magistrate nodded a couple of times and then turned back to me. “Alternatively, you can have your sentence commuted to seven days, if you agree to enrol in the Town’s new beach community service programme.” Anything appeared to be better than spending a month banged up for what I saw as a non-crime, so I agreed readily.
“Very well, I therefore sentence you to seven days under the auspices of the Public Humiliation Initiative…Next case please.” I didn’t like the sound of that at all.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself in the back of a Council minibus en route for the beach again, along with two other guys who found themselves in a similar position. We made our introductions. One was a blonde, blue-eyed boy called James, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen. He’d fallen foul of the same regulation as I had. The other, Nick, was taller, in his early to mid-twenties, with dark curly hair. He said he’d been to a stag party the night before, had unwisely drank more than he should and had promptly been arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the promenade in the early hours of the morning.
The bus pulled up outside a single storey, flat-roofed building at the far end of the seafront. The driver got out and came round to open the side door and told us to get out and go inside. He reached through and picked up the clipboard and paperwork resting on the front passenger seat. We went into the brick and steel shutter block. There were two other representatives of officialdom to greet us. The three introduced themselves as Andrew, who was the supervisor, Martin and Ian, who had driven us from court.
The first step, we were told, was to complete the formalities. Then we’d be put through induction onto the programme and the full details explained to us. We were shown a form to sign.
“It’s a waiver form,” Andrew explained, “it says that you voluntarily agree to take part in the initiative. Print your name and home address, sign and date it please.”
“And if we refuse?” Nick asked.
He shrugged. “Well, whatever your original sentence was still stands.”
We signed with some trepidation, not knowing exactly what we were signing up for. Andrew gathered up our completed documents, while Martin showed us into a small lecture room. We were going to watch an orientation video, he said, turning on the television at the front of the room and a DVD player to one side. He pushed the “play” button and a picture appeared on the screen. Actually, it was quite an interesting programme. It gave a brief history of crime and punishment in Britain since the Middle Ages, detailing how, from 1351 every town was required to provide a set of stocks (initially to incarcerate those who demanded a pay rise from their employers!) In 1495, a statute was passed allowing vagabonds and vagrants to be detained in the stocks for anything up to six days. A later Act required that anyone convicted of drunkenness should receive six hours in the stocks. I noticed Nick squirming uncomfortably at that. Most fascinating of all, although the pillory had been abolished in 1837, the law regarding the use of the stocks had never actually been repealed. The video moved on, citing psychological data that showed that a “short, sharp shock” involving public disgrace acted both as a powerful deterrent to further offences by the same individual and salutary warning to others.
At this point, Andrew re-entered the room and stopped the DVD to explain the rest in person. Apparently, the Public Humiliation Initiative was the modern equivalent of the stocks.
“Each of you will be expected to serve a term doing community service — in this case, cleaning up litter and rubbish on the beach,” he informed us. “That’s the ‘Public’ bit of it. The ‘Humiliation’ part means that members of the public must be able to identify who you are and that you’re being punished for some misdemeanour.” This was the crux of the thing. “Consequently, you have to wear a uniform, and, since you might have to get wet occasionally, going after some floating flotsam and jetsam, we give you a highly visible wetsuit.” I recalled the person I’d seen earlier that afternoon wearing the oddly coloured wetsuit and put two and two together. Andrew continued, “To heighten the sense of shame, the suits can be locked onto you: you will wear them continuously for the next seven days; your ordinary clothes will be confiscated for the duration and you are forbidden to wear any others over the top.” He paused to let us digest this information. “It’s too late to make a start today, so we’ll just get you suited up and ready. Report back here at nine o’clock prompt tomorrow morning and I’ll assign you zones of the beach to patrol. From nine to five, with a half-hour lunch break you will pick litter. Outside those hours you are, of course, free to do as you wish, except that you can’t take the wetsuit off or cover it up. Martin, Ian and I are around town most nights, so, if you go out, we’ll be keeping tabs on you. Questions?” James put his hand in the air tentatively. “Yes?” Andrew asked.
“How do we go to the toilet?”
“A good question. At the start and end of each day and at lunchtime you’ll have the opportunity to go here. I’d advise you to take advantage — and don’t be thinking of doing too much drinking in the evenings either! At other times, you’re welcome to piss in your wetsuits, but it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.”
Martin ushered us out of the lecture room and down a corridor to a locker room. He told us to get undressed and put our clothes into one of the empty lockers. Our other clothes would be picked up when Ian drove us back to our hotels or B&Bs. We got our kit off and complied with our instructions, standing around, self-consciously naked in the changing room. To one side there was a long cloakroom rail with, perhaps two-dozen, vividly coloured wetsuits hanging from it, in various sizes. I looked at them more closely. Each was a 3/2-millimetre steamer, custom-made of lime green neoprene body panels and legs. The arms were of a darker, bottle green and the shoulder flashes were in an electric, neon shade, guaranteed to stand out in a crowd. Emblazoned on the chest in white were the letters P, H and I standing for Public Humiliation Initiative and a logo consisting of a circle with an overlaid “I”. I was puzzled for a moment before I twigged; of course, it was a capital Greek letter Phi. Who says bureaucracy doesn’t have a sense of humour? No doubt the colour scheme was meant as a subtle plug for environmentalism, as well.
One by one we were taken through to the adjacent office along with one of the wetsuits selected from the rack by Martin. James went first. The connecting door was pushed to behind him. After a moment’s conversation, which the remaining pair of us could not make out, there was a strange buzzing sound. Then came the stretch and squeak of tight rubber being pulled over the body and a zip being fastened. There was more low-level talking and James emerged, now sheathed from neck to ankles in green wetsuit. The size had been chosen deliberately on the small side so that it was skintight: it left very little to the imagination! Both of us stared, gobsmacked, at this fit young guy in his new outfit. I found the sight particularly alluring and just hoped my arousal wouldn’t show! I guess Nick was having the same trouble, so I knew at least two of the three of us were gay. James was trying to reach an arm round behind to feel something at the collar. I moved in closer to see what it was. The tab of the zip had had a rectangular slot cut into it in the middle, lengthwise. After being zipped up all the way to the collar, it had been pushed over a similarly shaped miniature hasp and secured in some way that defied any attempt to undo it. I wanted to ask James what the buzzing noise had been, but I never got the chance, as it was my turn now.
Martin chose a suit for me and guided me into the next room next, closing the door after us. He and Ian took up station on either side of me and pushed me forward with one hand as they held me back by the shoulder with the other. I was therefore propelled so that my crotch was thrust towards Andrew, who was standing in front. He reached behind him and brought something out that had been laying on the desk — an electric shaver — the source of the mysterious sound.
“Since you’ve been sentenced to spend seven days in a wetsuit we’ve got to shave you, for hygiene,” he explained. “It’s easier and better if you don’t struggle.” The other two renewed their grip on my shoulders for emphasis, as he turned on the battery-powered device. In swift strokes, he rapidly denuded me of all my pubic hair and then set about shaving my arms, legs and torso. It felt really weird. Suitably hairless, I was ready for my wetsuit. All three of them helped me into it. As with James, it was an exceptionally tight fit and, since it was dry, they had to manhandle me to get me in it. As they pulled it up over my bare crotch the glut of sensations proved irresistible and I couldn’t prevent myself getting an erection. I went bright scarlet with embarrassment.
“Don’t worry,” Martin said, noticing my discomfiture. “We’ve seen it before. Lots of guys get hard from the thought of being in a nice taut wetsuit.” Perhaps this was an integral part of the humiliation process. They managed to get the bundle of neoprene up my front and forced my arms through the sleeves. Andrew went round the back and zipped me up.
“The zip is attached to the collar with a special lock. It and the zip are made from tungsten steel. An ordinary hacksaw won’t cut it, should you be inclined to try. These are bespoke wetsuits, so you won’t be able to get it repaired either, if you damage it, so we’ll know if you try to tamper with it. The lock can only be undone with a special tool.” He waved an implement in front of me — it looked a bit like a bottle opener.
“So how do I go to the loo without taking it off,” I wanted to know.
“There’s another zip at your groin — similarly locked, of course.” Sure enough there was a fly panel concealing a second zip that ran between my legs, front to back. “At the appointed times, one of us will unlock it for you and you can take a bathroom break. The rest of the time, however, you’ll just have to go inside your wetsuit!” I didn’t relish that idea much. Ian held the door open to allow me to return to the locker room where I joined James and Nick, whose turn it now was. He was summoned into the office to undergo his own transformation. Eventually we were all three standing there irretrievably wetsuited for the week.
We were made to get back in the minibus and Ian drove us back to our various accommodations. At each destination, he went with us to collect our clothing to be confiscated. I was the last to be delivered to the door. The landlord of the guesthouse gave me an odd look as we passed through the hall, but said nothing. When we got to my room I had to hand over a holdall with all my clothes in it. I was allowed to keep personal possessions, such as wallet, watch, keys and phone.
“If you were thinking of absconding, don’t!” Ian told me. “Remember, apart from any legal trouble it might get you into, you can’t get out of that wetsuit!” He had a point. After he departed, I was left sitting in my room wondering where it was all going to end. I didn’t dare go down to the dining room for dinner in my present state, so I remained where I was and watched television all evening, constantly distracted by the all-over tightness of the steamer. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just peculiar and, after an hour or two, I began rather to enjoy the sensation. It occurred to me that making someone overly self-conscious of his or her appearance was a good way to keep the unruly off the streets — no doubt that was the intention.
To be continued… In part 2.