Thomas Dobham and the Real World. By J.B. Pick.
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 as Pot.
"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?"
Dob thought about this. "I might be able to do real sums," he suggested.
The 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.
Mr 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?"
Dob 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 writing,
"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."
Dob's 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 instalments. 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 patterns?"
"What do you mean change patterns? It isn't knitting."
But 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 three weeks.
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.
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, forty-three times."
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."
"Yes, 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 very pleased.
Mr Potter blinked at Dob, not knowing how to begin.
Dob stood looking thoughtful. "Mr Potter?" he said.
"Eh? Yes?" "Do you like teaching?"
Potter looked sharply for signs of insolence on that amiable face and found none. He refrained with difficulty from groaning. "Why do you ask?"
"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."
"What sort 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 help you."
Mr Potter felt as if fluid was being drained from the base of his spine.
"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.
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© J.B. Pick 1971. Please do not reproduce it without consent.