Once upon a time there was a boy named Thomas Dobham who was
always known as Dob, which suited him because he couldn't learn things at
school. The maths teacher used to stare at him in a strained and fishy way, and
sometimes he would shout and throw chalk. His name was Potter, so he was known
"Dobham," Potter said, "You are an idiot. A deliberate idiot."
Dob thought this an enchanting phrase and muttered it to himself between
breathing until Potter threw chalk and shouted: "Dobham! What are you
muttering?" and he replied "Deliberate idiot, sir."
Mr Potter gave him
several hundred lines as a punishment for insolence. Dobham wrote the lines in
very wobbly writing with blots. When Potter saw the lines he groaned in a
peculiar way and put both hands on the top of his head as if to prevent his
brains from flying out through the bald patch.
"Dobham," said Mr Potter,
"what is your ambition?"
Dob thought for a bit and replied in a small
voice, "To be real, sir."
"Real?" said Mr Potter. "What do you mean, real?"
Dob didn't know, and eventually Potter groaned again, more soulfully this
time, and told him to get out.
On another occasion Mr Potter told Dob, "Your arithmetic is so
bad that the problems you have attempted are farther from solution than the
ones you haven't attempted at all. Tell me, what am I to do with you?"
thought about this. "I might be able to do real sums," he suggested.
class tittered and muttered. Mr Potter smiled thinly and held up a hand for
silence. (The left one. His right hand was clutching a piece of chalk.)
"Real sums, Dobham? What are real sums?"
But Dob didn't know.
Potter groaned. "Then perhaps you would consent to do these sums for me? And
try to understand the simple principles on which they are based?"
tried. He tried so hard that he was too busy concentrating on the explanation
that he couldn't understand the simple principle on which the sums were based.
A girl called Heather passed him a note. It said in fat round
"What are real sums?"
Dob found he knew the answer very
clearly. He wrote underneath in very wobbly writing with blots, "Real sums are
sums where the answer matters." He wished he could always tell people things as
clearly as that. Why couldn't he? Because you have to see something before you
can say it.
Dob had found that it was no use appealing to his father for
explanations that teachers had not the patience to give. His father was always
annoyed when Dob expressed a doubt about the world. "You'll see what's real
soon enough, my lad," he said, "when you've got great big hulking sons to feed
and clothe and keep out of prison. That's what's real - working, eating, and
sleeping, and don't you forget it."
Dob didn't forget it, but he couldn't help asking stupid
questions such as, "Do you like your work, Dad?"
"Like it?" said his
father, growing quite red in the face, "Why the devil should I like it? Anyone
that likes his work is a bloody freak, if you ask me. It's bad enough having to
do it without being expected to like it into the bleeding bargain."
mother told Dob's father to mind his language, and Dob's father said he did
mind his language, he minded it very much indeed, it was just the sort of
language his job deserved, and he would see that it got it. After that he went
out to the pub.
Dob's father worked in an office at a factory that made shoes.
Dob once asked whether his father wore the shoes that were made at the factory,
and his father said, "Not bloody likely."
Dob decided that he didn't want
to work in the office of a factory which made shoes.
The problem of where Dob would work sometimes made his father
jerk about irritably. "The sooner he leaves school the better," Mr Dobham said
to Mrs Dobham. "He doesn't learn anything. His reports are bloody . . .his
reports are shocking.
It's a waste of taxpayers' money to teach him. But
who would employ him? He can't do anything."
"Nonsense!" said Mrs Dobham.
She was an expert at saying ' Nonsense'. The way she said it would have made
Genghis Khan blench. "Of course he can."
"What can he do, then?" asked Mr
Dobham. Mrs Dobham looked righteous, and her head wagged a bit but she didn't
go so far as to reply.
Mr Dobham gave a spiteful nod and went to the pub.
It wasn't that he drank a lot or had a lot of friends at the
pub, but the pub was the place to which he went. He went because he went. If he
hadn't gone there he would have had to go somewhere else, and there wasn't
anywhere else he could think of to go. When he was there he waited until it was
time to go home. Then he went home.
It was what is known as 'a way of life.'
On Saturday he went
to the football match if there was one, although he didn't much like football.
He always had a down on the referee and several players on both sides, who he
said were so bloody awful that they should be made to pay back their transfer
fees in installments. He said the ref should wear dark glasses and then he'd
have an excuse for not seeing anything.
Sometimes he took Dob to the
football match, but Dob asked stupid questions such as, "Why don't they change
"What do you mean change patterns? It isn't knitting."
Dob didn't know.
As a matter of fact there was one thing Dob could do but his
parents never heard about that.
He could fight.
He couldn't fight
deliberately, but he could fight when roused. The other boys knew he was queer
because the teachers thought he was queer, and tormented him by hiding his
books, jabbering about him in groups. shouting at him, throwing things at him
in class when the teacher wasn't looking, saying he had done things he hadn't,
and stealing his food at lunch time. But when Dob got hold of one of the boys
who was doing any of this he sometimes banged him until the boy fell down. As a
rule the boy didn't like it and refrained from tormenting him for two or even
Once they set on him in a gang and Dob banged two of them
about until they fell down. They all ran away, looking very pale, except the
recumbent ones. who looked pale but didn't run away.
Dob was punished for
hurting the recumbent ones and could offer no explanation of why he had done
It was shortly after this that Mr Potter said to one of his
colleagues, "I'm worried about Dobham."
"Worried? You? I thought you had
more sense. I thought you just taught the little perishers what they have no
inclination to learn, not spent energy worrying about them. You've told me so,
Pot groaned. "Everybody's got to pretend something to
keep alive, and I used to pretend I cared about the little perishers, but when
I found out that it didn't do any good, I gave it up. But all the same, I'm
worried about Dobham."
"What's he done this time?" said Mr Walnut...
"Well, he knocked young Lotus cold in the playground and then knocked
Butter on top of him."
"Good," said Mr Walnut. "Well done, Dob."
but that's the trouble. I had to punish Dobham. We're always having to punish
Dobham. And yet there's no malice in him. He seems to take it all as a matter
of course. He's not as stupid as he looks. In fact he may not be stupid at all.
I tell you, Walnut, it's getting me down."
"Don't let it," said Mr Walnut.
"I mean this very sincerely. Just concentrate on their maths and let their
characters look after themselves."
"Anyone who concentrates on Dobham's
maths will go up the wall," said Mr Potter glumly.
"It couldn't be worse
than his French," said Mr Walnut.
Mr Walnut's remarks did not give Potter any comfort. One day he
made Dobham stay behind and the rest of the class giggled and muttered, except
Heather, because they thought he was going to catch it yet again and they were
Mr Potter blinked at Dob, not knowing how to begin.
stood looking thoughtful. "Mr Potter?" he said.
"Eh? Yes?" "Do you like
Potter looked sharply for signs of insolence on that amiable
face and found none. He refrained with difficulty from groaning. "Why do you
"Well, my father doesn't like his work, and I've been thinking about
that, and I just wondered."
"People don't expect to like their work," Mr
Potter said. "They have to work to earn the money to live. It's a sum, Dobham -
so much work, so much money."
"You mean, the harder people work the more
they get paid?"
"Yes. Well, no, not exactly. Some people work very hard and
get paid very little. It depends on the sort of job you have."
of jobs get paid best?"
"Oh, the heads of big companies, judges,
financiers, Prime Ministers."
"Is that because their jobs are real jobs?"
"No," said Mr Potter definitely, and wondered why he had said that. "What
do you mean, real?"
But Dob didn't know. Mr Potter realised that he must
get himself and the interview under control. "What job do you want when you
leave school, Dobham?"
"My father says I'll be lucky to get a job at all
because I'm no good at anything."
"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to
you about. Couldn't you make a real effort to get ahead with your work for this
last year so that you will have a chance of passing your exam? Your future
depends on it, you know."
Dob thought a bit.
"It doesn't seem to have
much to do with effort," he said.
Mr Potter wanted to shout "Nonsense,
Dobham!" and throw chalk, but after all he was trying to understand the boy, so
he must go through with it however bad for the nerves the experience might be.
"What has it got to do with, then?"
"I don't know, sir." Mr Potter
groaned inwardly but made no sound. He closed his eyes and waited, tapping his
fingers on the arm of his chair.
"Sometimes," Dob said suddenly, "I just
see something as if I was wide awake and I think, 'So that's what it's like!'
and I look round and everyone else seems to be asleep. But if I tell someone
what I've seen they don't know what I'm talking about."
Mr Potter didn't
know what Dobham was talking about but all the same he felt a vague excitement
to discover that the boy did have a brain after all.
"What sort of thing do
you mean, Dobham?" Mr Potter said. He was disquieted to notice the tinge of
sarcasm in his voice.
Dob noticed it too. "I don't know, sir," he said.
Mr Potter groaned. The urge to throw chalk grew powerfully within him. "I
would really like to know," he said with heroic calm.
"It's difficult to
explain." said Dob. "But one day I was looking at you, Mr Potter, and I saw
that you could have been a real teacher, it was just that there was no one to
Mr Potter felt as if fluid was being drained from the base of
"Is anything the matter?" Dob said.
Mr Potter found it
impossible to reply. "I'm very sorry, Mr Potter. I'll get you some water." Dob
darted from the room and was back in a clatter bearing a cracked cup that had
been used to hold glue and now held water.
Mr Potter took a sip. He looked round the room. It didn't seem
the same. He had forgotten how appalling it was. He had forgotten everything.
He looked at Dob's honest, earnest eyes and the sight made him groan.