A lady friend emailed me a long joke about explaining hell. It just struck a chord, this, I thought, is the cue for a story. The original is at the end of this story. The author appears to have confused Boyle's and Charles's Laws (check it on Wikipedia) but so what, the Department of Transport confuse mass and weight, and I remember being taught these Laws in physics not chemistry.
Ned Kelly sauntered disconsolately into the chemistry lab, tossed his satchel onto the lab bench near the front, and sat on one of high stools, his feet on one of the rungs, elbows on knees supporting his chin in his hands. Not to put too fine a point on it Ned was pissed off. He was there in answer to a summons from the chemistry master, Mr Waite, known to all students as 'Killer', because of his habit of killing himself laughing at his own jokes, and he had already missed the school bus home, which meant that he would have to take the regular service bus to the nearest point to his home, and walk the last three miles. Add to this that Wendy Simpson had just told him that it would be a cold day in hell when he took her to the pictures - he wondered where she got that colourful phrase from - and he felt he had good reason to be pissed off. At sixteen, he had discovered, as at any other age he would discover, being turned down by a woman was not good for your ego.
He also knew exactly why Killer had summoned him.
"Ah Kelly," said a loud voice as the man himself came out of the preparation area behind the teacher's bench and stood in front of the blackboard.
"Yes sir," said the eponymous individual, straightening himself up.
"Kelly, do you know why you are here, hmm?"
"Umm ... because of my homework, sir?"
"No Kelly, because of the lack of your homework, it can't be because of it, because you haven't done any," and Killer laughed loudly at what he obviously perceived as a joke. "And what you have done this term isn't worth the paper it's written on, and it's no laughing matter."
"What do you think I should do with you, eh? You have failed utterly to grasp the concept of valency, and the only chemical formula you have remembered is the one concerning Jimmy Brown..."
Ned's mind wandered off to the little poem:
Here lies the body of Jimmy Brown, Alas he is no more, For what he thought was H2O, Was H2SO4.
Sulphuric acid - what use was that? Ned hated chemistry.
" ... are you listening Kelly? You seem to off in a dream again."
It wasn't just chemistry, physics was OK, except he wasn't supposed to say OK, his mother hated the American slang, but any way, biology was tolerable, maths he wasn't bad at and English was, umm ... alright if it wasn't for the boring literature stuff. What did Chaucer have to do with anything, it wasn't even written in English, and Shakespeare, that wasn't much better. " ... so what I am going to do is set you an essay. You have three weeks to research and write an essay on the subject, 'Is Hell Endothermic or Exothermic'.
WHAT? What the hell was the dopey old duffer on about?
"Have you got that Kelly? Write it down boy, 'Is Hell Endothermic or Exothermic', three weeks, during which time you will also submit regular homework."
"Right, off you go, and good night."
"Goodnight sir," said Ned, picking up his satchel and hoping that he hadn't missed the service bus because there wouldn't be another for an hour.
It was five minutes walk to the bus station, and the bus was sat on the forecourt waiting to leave on the next part of its journey. There were several other passengers already sitting on the bus, and the driver and conductor were standing by the open door chatting to another man. As he got one foot on the bottom step he heard one of the men say something about being left handed, laughing, and the other man declared:
"Well, I'm not left handed!" and he turned to Ned and said:
"I expect you're left handed," he grinned.
It so happened that Ned was left handed, and said so, whereupon all three men laughed uproariously. Ned blushed deeply, he had no idea what they were talking about, boarded the bus and sat down.
The driver took his seat and started the engine, and the bus pulled out on its journey, which would be straight along the old coach road some six miles, through Pashmoor, which was only a pub at the cross roads and a few other houses, and on to the city some miles away across the downs. With luck, Ned thought, with the circuitous route taken by the school bus to get to Pashmoor, stopping to drop the other kids off, he might just join the other kids from his village when it dropped them there, and if Sid was late with the taxi to take them to the village, which he usually was, he might just get there in time. But he knew it was a pretty forlorn hope.
The conductor picked up his ticket machine and advanced down the bus.
"Where to?" he asked Ned with a grin.
"Half to Pashmoor, please," said Ned, shrinking into his seat, and handed the conductor his fare.
"You not fourteen yet then?" the conductor asked. "Big lad for you're age aren't you?" and he handed Ned the ticket with a grin. Ned's blush deepened.
Ned sat and watched the countryside unroll past the window, lost in thought. What the hell was that all about? He was left handed, so what? And there was hell again, what was that all about? Killer was known to be religious, a quaker or something, Ned had no idea, and what was this about hell? Thermic had to be something to do with heat, and exo meant giving out so endo must mean taking in. Oh, I see, he thought, is hell giving off heat, or is it taking in heat. How the fuck should I know? And moreover, I don't believe in hell, some little man with horns and a forked tail, honestly ... and Ned's thoughts rambled on, turning largely on Wendy Simpson. And if on Wendy Simpson, then largely on that young lady's chest. Fulsome, well developed, and well worth comtemplating.
Two hours later, as he trudged down the path to the back door of his home, Ned realised that this just wasn't his lucky day. Of course Sid had been early, and of course this just had to be the evening his mother went to the Women's Institution. Institute, he corrected himself.
Mrs Kelly was at the back door when Ned got there, clearly not happy, and, as usual when he was in her bad books she used his full name.
"Gerald Michael Kelly," she said in a loud voice, "just where the hell have you been? I've been worried sick this last hour wondering what had happened to you..." and she continued in this vein for some minutes whilst Ned wondered about her use of the word hell. Suddenly everyone was talking about hell, or mentioning it anyway, or perhaps taking its name in vain. Was this, he wondered, a sort of anti blasphemy? Perhaps there was a devil, heaven knows his mother had called him a little one often enough. His younger sister, on the other hand, was usually called a little angel, although not by anyone who had to live with her. Except his mother, who obviously, Ned thought, imagined a totally different person to the girl he knew when she spoke about her daughter. Ned wasn't sure what his father thought, he worked nights at a factory in one of the big towns and Ned only saw him briefly during the week and at weekends.
There is an obvious discrepancy here. Not only did Mrs Kelly and Ned not agree about Susan, Ned's younger sister, seeming to believe that she was two different people, but Mrs Kelly did not call her son Ned, but Gerald. This wasn't because there were two of them, and she was alone in not calling him Ned. Susan, of course, didn't call Ned anything, except when reporting his, shall we say, indiscretions, to his mother, since she could barely bring herself to speak to him under normal circumstances, a state of affairs that was mutual. The fact was that Ned had been christened Gerald Michael, and had been known as Gerry, until one day in his eleventh year, during the summer before he went to the grammar school, he was playing with the other lads from the village when one of them had crept up behind him and placed a seven pound biscuit tin over his head. His younger sister had immediately struck the tin with a stick, making his ears ring for several days, and delaying the tin's removal for several minutes until one of the fathers had arrived to see what the fuss was about. He immediately burst out laughing and declared that young Gerry looked just like Ned Kelly, the notorious Australian outlaw. Needless to say Ned was not amused by this. But thereafter everyone, with the notable exception of Mrs Kelly, called him Ned, and this he rather liked. Mrs Kelly was convinced that she had made the right choice when she called him Gerald, and stuck to her guns, but when other boys came to see if he was coming out, accepted that they called him Ned.
" ... have you heard a single word I've said Gerald Kelly?" Mrs Kelly wound down to a stop.
"What did I just say then?"
"You asked me where the hell I'd been."
"That was ten minutes ago, and don't swear. You really are the most..." a car horn sounded outside, "Damn, that's Mrs Troughton, I've got to go, it's WI. Your tea is in the oven. Goodbye dear." And she kissed him on the cheek and left.
Ned dumped his satchel and headed for the bathroom, footsore he might be but thoughts of Wendy had returned and he felt that a little attention should be paid to the result of those thoughts. He was sitting on the w.c. a few minutes later, his left hand grasping his stiff willie when it suddenly occurred to his what the men had been referring to when they had spoken of being left handed. Ned let out a snort of laughter.
"What are you doing in there?" came his sister's voice.
"Bugger off, you nosey bitch," Ned yelled.
"I'm going to tell mum you've been swearing."
But by this time Ned was away in his own little world and taking no notice of anything beyond his left hand.
Ned stepped off the school bus the next morning, placing his cap, which he had had since the first form and was sadly mutilated, on his head as he crossed the seven or eight feet of pavement, and then removed it, and placed it in his pocket.
A large sixth form prefect appeared in front of him.
"You're not wearing your cap Kelly. You know the rules, you have to wear your cap on the way to and from school."
"If you were watching so closely Albert, you'd have seen that I was wearing it on my way into school. I don't have to wear it on the bus, and I don't have to wear it in the playground. That's the rules Albert, you should know, you voted for them, along with the rest of your arse lickers."
"I will get you Kelly. I don't like you, nobody likes you, and the headmaster doesn't like you either."
"Yeah, well. The feeling is entirely mutual."
Ned wandered off to the fifth form classroom where registration would take place.
"Hey, Ned! What'd Killer want last night?" yelled his long term partner in crime Danny Morgan, as he entered the room.
"Oh, and a very good morning to you too," said Ned, slinging his satchel towards his desk.
There was a lot of giggling between a group of girls near the coke stove. Obviously, Ned thought, Wendy had already opened her gob. Do I make myself look a prat, or do I need help?
"Killer wasn't very happy about my homework," he aid to Danny.
Danny laughed, "you never do any, so he couldn't be unhappy about it."
"We did that joke last night with Killer," said Ned. "He thought it was hilarious."
"So what did he say?"
"He's given me an essay to write, and I've absolutely no idea what it is about, or what to do about it. Arseholes!" Ned exclaimed as he threw a kick at a school cap on the floor which turned out to be rather more solid than he had imagined, due to some wag having placed a brick under it.
Ned retired to his desk and sat down to the sound of general hilarity. Their form master chose this time to slip quietly in. There was a scuffle for desks as the other kids realised he was there.
"Kelly, for once you don't seem to be at the centre of the noise," he boomed out. "although I suspect," he went on more quietly, "that you probably had something to do with it."
"Be quiet, Hopkirk. I don't want the details."
Registration completed, everyone went to assembly, which, this being a protestant country, meant that the few roman Catholics did not attend for the hymns and prayers, but shuffled in at the end so that they could hear any announcements.
First and second periods on this day meant physics for Ned and his friends, because, despite the awful Albert's assertion, Ned was popular with most of his peers and had many friends. The majority of the staff liked him too, they just wished he would do some work. In one thing though, Albert was quite correct, the headmaster did not like Ned.
"We are still on the subject of gasses," said the physics master. "Last time we covered Boyles Law. Can you tell me what Boyles Law is ... Kelly." The master paused just long enough so that he appeared to be making a choice as to who would answer.
"Sir ... Boyles Law states that at a constant temperature the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume."
"Well done Kelly. Now what does that mean?"
"That if you increase the pressure the volume decreases."
"Provided the temperature is constant. That's excellent, we'll make a student of you yet Kelly. Now, today we are going to study Charles's Law. Charles's Law is not dissimilar. It states that if the pressure of a gas is constant, then the volume increases as the temperature increases. Now, we will carry out an experiment to demonstrate this..."
And the lesson droned on. Ned had grasped the concept without too much difficulty and, as usual, largely tuned out of the proceedings. It was during this time that he suddenly realised that if hell existed it must have a volume, after all, it stood to reason, earth had a volume, so why not hell. Or heaven for that matter. But how big was it? Did that matter? Obviously hell contained souls, but which ones? And how big were they, and was that of any importance? The Christians, according to the vicar, said that if you were wicked then your soul went to hell. And from what he had read the Muslims said much the same thing. In fact, when he thought about it, it became clear that almost all the world's religions said that if you were wicked you went to hell.
After a period of chemistry that afternoon Ned intercepted Killer.
"Sir, may I have a word?"
"Yes, Kelly. What is it?"