When I was eleven years old the headmaster at my junior school called me to his office. I thought it was because I’d been seen snogging Amanda Harrison behind the garages but, no. It was for a very different reason.
Mr. Alderman sat me down in the staff room on a scratchy chair, reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a piece of lined jotter paper. It had been folded in quarters and was beginning to fall apart. He read from the paper.
I can no longer remember the exact words, but I do know that it was a story. It was a story about a boy who takes care of his two brothers after school. He makes them do their homework while he peels potatoes and cuts them into chips. His parents come home; his Father has a bath. The boys get in the grey water after him. Then, fed and washed, the family huddles together on the sofa and watches “This is Your Life” together.
I recognised the story. It was one I had written in class some months before. When Mr. Alderman finished, his eyes were red and wet. He said, “This is important, Karl. Listen very carefully. You must never stop writing. There are few people in life with the talent to tell stories. Stories that touch people or make them think or laugh or cry. You’re one of those people – and you should never give up.”
And he probably said some other things but I was more interested in something else by that point. On the table, in a Tupperware box, was half a chocolate cake; creamily frosted, a kitchen knife crumb-smeared next to it. In my mind I was hurrying him through his encouragement and dreaming that it would end with him saying:
“And because you’re such a good writer, here’s a big piece of cake. Don’t tell anyone!”
But I thought about his words as I walked home, as I wrestled with my brothers on the carpet and as I took a clout around the ear for not washing up from breakfast. And I thought about it more as my Dad ducked out to the pub and Mum screeched “get to bed!” when I asked if I could stay up to watch Monty Python.
The next day I told some of the kids in my class about what had happened. Only one of them believed me. Martin Jenkins.
“Really?” he said, “That’s great.”
“Actually, Alderman called me into his office straight after you and said the same thing to me. Except he was crying his eyes out. Absolutely bawling. And then he gave me a piece of cake”.
A lot of time has passed since then. I’ve had a couple of careers, one as a university lecturer and one as a technology journalist. But I’ve never given up writing stories. And when I doubt my ability or find that I haven’t been making time to finish a piece, I think about those words:
“And then he gave me a piece of cake”.
Martin Jenkins. You bastard.
My name is Karl Hodge. You can find my journalism in the computer section at WH Smith and everything else via Google. This site is a dumping ground for works in progress, sketches, essays and thoughts about fiction and narrative. I hope it makes you cry.