Les Merton


Les Merton

What the Dickens!

from Dark Corners

    'Stand up! Stand up at once, boy!' demanded Mister Shelley, the headmaster of Penkie School in Cornwall. He pointed his cane at Owen Kneebone and abruptly asked, 'How old are you boy?'
    Owen Kneebone stood to attention behind his desk. His ears were burning and he felt a need to go to the toilet. Owen swallowed and managed to blurt out, 'I'm in me thirteen Sir.'
    'In your thirteen, boy? You are twelve, boy! Twelve, was the answer I wanted!'
    'Yes Sir, I know I'm twelve, but I'm still in me thirteen.'
    'Answering back is not permitted in this school, boy!'
    'Sorry Sir,' Owen replied, trying not to look at the cane being evilly tapped by Mister Shelley onto his free hand.
    'If you are in your thirteen -', Mister Shelley paused for dramatic effect, then raised his voice to emphasise. 'If you are in your thirteen, you should have ambition. What is your ambition? What do you want to achieve when you leave school, boy?'
    Owen smiled and looked at his classmates for support. They all nodded.
    'My ambition is to play rugby for Cornwall, Sir,' Owen said with the confidence of youth, and a conviction that it was the right response.
    Mister Shelley grimaced and swished his cane in exasperation.
    'I don't believe anybody could be so stupid!' the headmaster sneered. 'You've got as much chance of playing rugby for Cornwall as Oliver Twist had of getting seconds when he stupidly asked for more!'
    Mister Shelley's words fell on barren ground. He stared at Owen for a moment and inquired sardonically, 'Have you ever read Oliver Twist, boy?'
    'No Sir,' Owen answered truthfully.
    'Read it, boy! Read it, boy!' Mister Shelley shouted, and stormed out of the classroom.
    'I‘ll read Oliver Twist dreckly Sir,' Owen said, and glanced at his fellow pupils who all giggled.

* * * * *

    Owen Kneebone never did play Rugby for Cornwall. When he left school he went underground at South Crofty Mine to work with his father.
    One lunch-time Owen got talking to Percy Pascoe, his shift captain, who advised Owen to broaden his mind and start reading some of the great Cornish authors, like Quiller Couch and Jack Clemo.
    From that day on, Owen's nose was never out of a book. About a year later, he started to write short stories.
    One afternoon, when the shift finished, the men were waiting for the man-engine to take them from the underground level where they had been working, up to the surface. Owen plucked up enough courage to show a short story he had written to Percy Pascoe. The shift captain read it there and then, by the light of his miner‘s lamp.
    'Owen you got a literary gift. You must show this short story to somebody a bit higher up, you know what I mean, someone that's had a bit of an academic education.'
    Owen thought about it for days. Eventually he made an appointment to see Mister Shelley, the man who used to be his headmaster.

* * * * *

    On the appointed day, Owen took what he thought was his best short story to his former headmaster’s house.
    Owen arrived on time and knocked on the front door. Mister Shelley opened the door and sullenly invited Owen into the study. The walls were lined with shelves of books. For a moment Owen felt intimidated. Then he grasped the bull by the horns and said, 'I've got a new ambition, Sir. I want to be a writer.' With that, he thrust his short story into the hand of his former headmaster.
    Mr Shelley sighed and sat down wearily to read Owen’s story. When he finished, he gave Owen an envious glance and snapped, 'Did you ever read Oliver Twist, boy?'
    The former pupil answered optimistically, 'Yes, I did Sir. And I saw the film with Alec Guinness as Fagin, as well as the television adaptation. Plus the musical, and I know what Oliver Reed, when he portrayed Bill Sykes, wanted to say to Nancy when she asked if he loved her.'
    When he saw the look on Mister Shelley's face, Owen suppressed a smile, and hesitated, before he concluded with, 'To crown it all, I've tasted the soup Oliver Twist wanted more of.'
    'Obviously, you know a lot about Oliver Twist, boy,' Mister Shelley said sarcastically, and stood up. 'I'm sure you will understand, when I say Oliver Twist would never have made a pickpocket, no matter how much Fagin wanted him to be one.'
    The headmaster opened his front door and stated, 'I understand you work underground in South Crofty mine with your father.'
    Owen nodded, 'Yes, that's right.'
    Mister Shelley handed Owen his short story back. He paused before he made his final snide comment, 'The Cornish Miner, by A.K. Hamilton Jenkin, is an excellent read boy. It should remind you not to have aspirations beyond your natural station in life.' The ex-school headmaster forced a smile at his former pupil. He gave his imaginary cane a swish, and closed the door.


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