House Rules


In this story I relate a series of incidents that took place when my siblings and I were staying with our grandparents at the same time as our cousins from Canada. If that sounds like a familiar premise, so it should; this story is pretty much a sequel to the events in Canadian Invasion. This is a fairly short story, so I won't overload it by introducing all the family members in great detail all over again when I've already done it once.


Some days after the rounds of 'Capture the Flag' that I described in a previous story, I was set upon as I left the old nursery, the bedroom that my brother and sister and I shared in the old Rectory where my grandparents lived. I don't remember what I had been doing in the bedroom, but it was probably something quite innocent like fetching a book. As I opened the door, I found all four of my cousins waiting for me: Fred, the twins Martha and Mary and little Suzie, the youngest. I was surprised, but suspected nothing until they wrestled me to the floor.


It was obvious what was going to happen when I saw that Suzie was in charge of the large cardboard box of tying-up materials that my siblings and I kept at our grandparents house. Fred and the twins forced me to the floor while Suzie handed them the necessary supplies to secure me. A handkerchief stuffed into my mouth prevented me crying out and an old scarf tied between my teeth stopped me ejecting it. Fairly rapidly after that, my wrists were crossed and bound behind my back with rope, my ankles were tied together and the two bindings linked to secure me in a neat hog-tie.


I was chagrined to have been captured so easily, but not particularly distressed at being tied up. My siblings and I often played games involving tying each other up and we had discovered that our Canadian cousins shared this predilection, so it was a predicament I anticipated enjoying.


My Aunt Megan, my captors' mother, came up the stairs to the landing where I was being trussed up, probably to see what all the commotion was. I knew that she wasn't bothered by these games, so all I expected was for her to check that no-one had been hurt and then to leave us to get on with it.


"Are you all right, Becca?" my Aunt asked.


I nodded in reply.


"OK about being tied up?"


I nodded again.


"Did you give them permission to tie you up?"


That sounded like a rephrasing of the previous question, so I hesitated unsure what she was actually asking and unsure how to reply.


"I know you don't mind being tied up," Aunt Megan continued, sensing my confusion, "but did my kids ask you if it was all right before they tied you up?"


It was obvious that Aunt Megan expected permission to be asked. I was perfectly content to be the victim of a surprise tie-up but I certainly hadn't given explicit permission. (After all, it wouldn't have been much of a surprise if I had.) I was gagged, so I could only really reply with a nod or a shake of the head; there was no opportunity to evade the question. I seriously contemplated the option of lying, but I was a basically truthful child so I shook my head.


"I thought we'd been through all that," Aunt Megan told her children. "I'm very disappointed in you. Untie Becca and report to me in the sitting room please." With that, she went back downstairs.


"What just happened?" I asked as soon as I could speak again.


"We just got into trouble," Fred replied.


"How? I thought your mum was OK about tying up."


"She is, but the rule is that we never tie anyone up without their permission."


"But you knew I'd be OK about it," I countered. "Doesn't that count as permission?"


"No, it has to be explicit," Fred explained.


"We've been in trouble over this before," Martha added. "That's why Mom has rules."


"So what happens next?" I asked, now completely free once more.


"She shouts at us and then she ties us up," Mary told me flatly.


I was horrified. I could imagine tying up being a punishment reserved for something very serious (my mother had done that to my sister and me on rare occasions), but this seemed to be a very minor offence, no more than the omission of a courtesy. Just as shocking was the fact that they knew what the punishment would be without being told. How often did this happen, I wondered.


Somewhat hesitantly, I accompanied my four cousins downstairs. This was a disciplinary matter in another family, so it wasn't any of my business (and childhood etiquette was that a discreet withdrawal was appropriate if a friend was being disciplined by their parents). Nevertheless, I felt somehow responsible and wanted any opportunity to speak up in my cousins' defence.


Aunt Megan was waiting in the sitting room. She looked sternly at her children but favoured me with a small smile. "You know the rules and you know the punishment," she told them, "but this is your chance to explain your actions, if there is any reason I shouldn't punish you."


There was a deathly silence. I wondered if I should speak up, but if my cousins weren't going to defend themselves, I didn't see how I could contribute.


"Nothing to say? Very well, it's a nice day, so we'll do this outside. Go to the bathroom and meet me on the lawn."


My cousins trooped out of the room leaving just Aunt Megan and me.


"Becca, would it be all right if I used your box of ropes and things for this?" she asked.


Again I wondered if I should speak up, but everything seemed to be moving so fast that I couldn't work out how to express myself. Instead, I just agreed and offered to fetch the box.


"Thank you Becca," my aunt replied. "And do you know if there are any picnic blankets I could borrow?"


"In the coat cupboard at the back door," I replied.


I went back upstairs and repacked the tying-up supplies (which were strewn across the landing) back into the box which I carried back down with me.


I found Aunt Megan on the lawn at the foot of the slope below the terrace at the back of the Rectory. She had already laid out four tartan blankets on the grass Fred and Suzie were there awaiting their fate but there was no sign of the twins.


"I'll start with you, Fred," Aunt Megan announced. "Lie down and cross your wrists behind your back please."


Fred lay down on his tummy as he was instructed and my aunt quickly and expertly bound his wrists with a short length of rope. I noticed her check that the binding was secure but not causing undue pressure on her son's wrists. Without being prompted, Fred bent his knees so his feet were in easy reach for his mother to tie his ankles together. With that done she added a length of rope linking the ankle and wrist bindings. Fred's knees were bent at approximately a right angle, so it was quite a loose hog-tie, but certainly served to immobilise him quite effectively.


Suzie received exactly the same treatment as soon as Fred was securely tied.


By this time, the twins had arrived on the scene. Mary handed a bunch of long socks to her mother.


"Please don't gag us," Suzie pleaded. "I don't mind being tied up, but having your mouth gagged is horrible."


"You should have thought of that before you gagged Becca," Aunt Megan retorted. "Besides, I want you four to think about obeying the house rules, not to have a nice chat together."


A few minutes later, Mary and Martha were tied up exactly the same way as Fred and Suzie, each cousin on his or her own blanket and about 6 feet away from each other. As Suzie anticipated, the socks were indeed to be used as gags. Aunt Megan started with Fred, knotting the sock, pushing the knot into his mouth and knotting the ends behind his head. Martha and Mary received the same treatment but Suzie was gagged with an unknotted sock. Whether this was a concession to her protests or simply to her smaller size, I do not know.


I walked back to the Rectory with my aunt. I had missed several opportunities, but I felt I really had to say something about what had been going on.


"I don't really understand what all this is about," I ventured tentatively.


"It's quite simple. Those four all like playing tying-up games, and I don't mind that, but I insist that they get permission from whoever is being tied up beforehand, especially if it's someone outside the family."


"I understand that, but why so strict?" I asked.


Aunt Megan sighed. "It's because of who we are. Uncle John is a church minister, so everything we do comes under more scrutiny than other families have to cope with. It's not very fair, but it means that not just John and I but the kids all have to be on our best behaviour all the time."


"But why the rule about tie-up games?" I persisted.


"I'm getting to that. We had a church camp at Easter last year and some of the kids started tying each other up. It was all in fun and nobody minded but, all the same, John gave the kids a little reminder that it was only fun if everyone was a willing participant. It wasn't a big heavy this-is-your-minister-talking kind of thing, just a comment one mealtime."


I nodded to show I understood what she meant by that.


"Anyway, the games went on sporadically for several days until one morning I was confronted by an angry parishioner, accompanied by her daughter who was clearly very upset and had obviously been crying. Apparently the girl had been found by her mother tied to a tree and gagged and, as I could plainly see, she was very upset about it. It seemed that it was Mary and Martha who had tied her up."


"I confronted the twins and they readily admitted that they had tied the girl up, but said that it was a follow on of an escape game they had been playing the previous day and they thought she was quite keen to continue. The mother countered that her daughter had been feeling a little unwell the previous evening and, while she was looking forward to playing with Martha and Mary, had hoped to play something physically less taxing. The girl herself chipped in at that point and said that she had been talked into agreeing to be tied up but hadn't really wanted to. To their credit, the twins immediately realised that they had overstepped the mark and had gone beyond friendly persuasion to something close to coercion. They apologised unreservedly, which the girl seemed to accept. However, her mother demanded that some sort of sanction against my girls was called far after what her daughter had been through."


"So you tied them up?" I asked, seeing where this was leading.


"It was the twins who suggested it themselves on the basis that it was an appropriate way to show how sorry they were. I was slightly uneasy about that, but John said that if they were happy with that themselves and if the girl and her mother were also satisfied then we should do it. We also felt under some pressure to make sure that justice was done and seen to be done, so that there was no suggestion of the minister's kids getting away with something that others might not. It seemed to be an appropriate way to make an example of the twins as they had suggested it themselves."


"One of my teachers says that 'making an example' of someone means that you punish them more than they really deserve," I commented.


"Pour encourager les autres? Yes, it's true and your teacher is wise and perceptive to point that out. We did it anyway; I tied Mary and Martha to two trees, gagged them and left them for an hour. Word soon got around and it was a rather more public humiliation than they had anticipated, but it made an impression on them and made it clear that we wouldn't tolerate indiscipline like that in our own children."


"And you still apply the rule?"


"Well, you've found out how much my four like tying people up, so there has to be some rule about consent and some sanction if the rule is ignored," my aunt concluded.


I had to ask, "How often have you had to do this?"


"Twice since that first occasion, but this is the first time it's been all four of them at once."


Listening to my aunt had clarified my own thinking about the situation, so that I could now articulate the sense of injustice I felt on my cousins' behalf. I decided to argue my case.


"But Aunt Megan, I had no idea that there was a rule like this, or how strict it was. As far as I was concerned, we'd played games like this before, so Fred and the others had a blanket permission to tie me up and I would have told them to stop if I hadn't wanted to join in this morning."


"Nevertheless, the rule is they have to ask permission and get a positive reply first," Aunt Megan replied.


"But if I'd known that, I'd have made sure to voice my permission before I was tied up," I protested.


Aunt Megan remained adamant. "I'm sure you would, Becca, but it's their responsibility to ask, not yours to volunteer."


Aunt Megan clearly wasn't going to relent, so I would have to take a different approach to rebalancing the scales of justice.


"Aunt Megan, I still feel responsible. If I'd known about this rule, I would have behaved quite differently this morning and you wouldn't have had to punish anyone."


"Maybe so, Becca, but you aren't subject to my rules and my own children are," my aunt pointed out.


"But I'm still almost as much to blame as they are and now they're tied up because of a rule I didn't know about. It's not fair."


"Well they know the rules and the consequences," Aunt Megan said patiently. "I'm not going to untie them just because you didn't know what might happen to them."


"I understand that," I replied, "but if you won't untie them then maybe you should tie me up as well."


Aunt Megan was rather taken aback by this. I don't think she had anticipated the direction my mind was running in. "But it wouldn't be fair to punish you when you haven't broken any rules," she replied after a long pause.


"Maybe not, but it would show my loyalty to my cousins and I would feel better about it if you did," I replied.


There was another very long pause then Aunt Megan smiled at me. "As long as it's a gesture of loyalty and you understand that I'm not punishing you, then that's fine. I think it's very noble of you to think that way and very courageous to stand up to me as you did. I suggest you go to the bathroom and meet me in the garden."


I went upstairs to the bathroom, collected a sock from my bedroom for use as a gag and went back out to the garden.


My cousins were all still lying on their picnic blankets. Fred was still lying prone with his feet in the air, in exactly the position that his mother had left him. The twins had both rolled onto their sides and were facing each other. Suzie was on her back with her knees up and her eyes closed against the brightness of the sun. A fifth blanket had already been spread out for me.


As Aunt Megan tied me up, I could tell that her expertise with rope was considerable. She had no difficulty forming a wrist binding that was inescapable yet didn't interfere with circulation. The hog-tie was similarly incapacitating without putting any strain on my body. (I also discovered when I explored my bonds that none of the knots securing me were within reach or my fingertips.) The knotted sock gag was applied with the same delicacy of touch and I was left to contemplate my predicament.


I don't really remember how long we were left tied up for, although I think it might have been about an hour.


After we had all been freed, my cousins expressed surprise but pleasure at my determined loyalty to them. My sister and brother, on the other hand, just thought I was crazy.


There was much debate about how best to implement the rules about permission while allowing surprise attacks to take place but without resorting to lying about permission having been given. The solution we came up with was a code-word to give instant permission. A prospective captor would announce his or her intention with "Pongo?" and the putative victim would reply "Pongo!" to give consent, pretty much the converse of a safe-word.


I think I need to add a disclaimer that I don't remember entire conversations word-for-word 45 and more years after the event. I certainly remember the essence of what my aunt told me but the words as reported here are my reconstruction of how the conversation might have gone. (And that's why her phraseology is rather English-sounding for a Canadian, in case you were wondering.)


I also have to confess that I lied slightly about 'Pongo'. My sister and I used the concept of an 'unsafe-word' to initiate or invite a tie-up game for years afterwards and later we both continued to do so for rather more adult games with our respective husbands. The code-word we actually used was one that could be dropped inconspicuously into normal conversation and which would go quite unnoticed by those not in the know. Wild horses wouldn't drag the actual word from me.








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