Pop Eye & Mr. Dickens
"I will be honest with you. I have no wisdom, none at all. The truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we've got. Oh, and of course Mr. Dickens."
Who was Mr. Dickens ? And why, in a village population of less than sixty, had we not met him before ? Some of the older kids tried to pretend they knew who he was. One even said he was a friend of his uncle's, and encouraged by our interest went on to say he had met Mr. Dickens. His claim was soon exposed by our questions and he sloped off like a kicked dog. It turned out no one knew Mr. Dickens.
"Tomorrow, I told my mum, "we meet Mr. Dickens."
She stopped sweeping and thought. "That's a white man's name." She shook her head and spat out the door. "No. You heard wrong, Mathilda. Pop Eye is the last white man. There is no other."
"Mr. Watts says there is."
I had heard Mr. Watts speak. I had heard him say he would always be honest with kids. If he said we were to meet Mr. Dickens, then I felt sure that we would. I was looking forward to seeing another white man. It never occurred to me to ask where this Mr. Dickens had been hiding himself. But then I had no reason to doubt Mr. Watts' word.My mum would have reconsidered overnight, because next morning when I ran off to school she called me back.
"This Mr. Dickens, Mathilda – if you get the chance, why don't you ask him to fix our generator."
Every other kids turned up to school with similar instructions. They were to ask Mr. Dickens for anti-malaria tablets, aspirin, generator fuel, beer, kerosene, wax candles. We sat at our desks with our shopping lists and waited for Mr. Watts to introduce Mr. Dickens.
"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."
There had been no warning from Mr. Watts. He just began to read. My desk was in the second row from the back. Gilbert Masoi sat in front, and I couldn't see past his fat shoulders and big woolly head. So when I heard Mr Watts speak I thought he was talking about himself. That he was Pip. It was only as he began to walk between our desks that I saw the book in his hand.
He kept reading and we kept listening. It was some time before he stopped, but when he looked up we sat stunned by the silence. The flow of words had ended. Slowly we stirred back into our bodies and our lives.
Mr. Watts closed the book and held the paperback up in one hand, like a church minister. We saw him smile from one corner of the room to the other. "That was chapter one of Great Expectations, which, incidentally, is the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens."
Now we felt silly as bats for thinking we were going to be introduced to someone by the name of Mr. Dickens. Perhaps Mr. Watts had an idea of what was going on in our heads, though. "When you read the work of a great writer," he told us, "you are making the acquaintance of that person. So you can say you have met Mr. Dickens on the page, so to speak. But you don't know him yet."
Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones.