My favourite short story writer is W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham wrote novels and plays as well, but in the short story genre he is acknowledged to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. One of my preferred short stories of his is The Verger. People who know me well know that this has been a favourite of mine for over twenty years so this is why I bring it up now considering the predicament I find myself in.
This is a six page short story about a verger who gets laid off after 16 years of faithful service and impeccable performance in his job at the church because the recently appointed vicar finds out that he can neither read nor write. In his depressed state on the evening he is let go, he wanders several streets of London searching for a tobacconist shop to buy cigarettes. He knows he cannot live for long on his meager savings, wants to sit and think about what he will do with his life and he wants a cigarette to smoke while doing so.
Upon not being able to find a shop easily, he decides to open one as he cannot imagine that he is the only person that this has happened to, wanting to buy cigarettes but not finding a readily accessible store. He opens one, becomes successful and soon expands. Before long he is operating a string of shops, all of them quite lucrative.
Finally one day, as he is depositing his weekly earnings, the bank manager stops and chats with him for a few minutes, trying to convince him to invest some of his hard-earned money in some investment products (sound familiar?) in order to get higher returns. The verger is hesitant to do this and confesses to the bank manager that he would not be able to read the paperwork in order to sign it. The bank manager is completely flabbergasted and says,
“And do you mean to say that you’ve built up this important business and amassed a fortune of 30,000 pounds (remember, Maugham wrote this short story circa 1920) without being able to read or write? Good God man, what would you be now if you had been able to?”
The ex-verger then replies.
“I can tell you that sir,” said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still aristocratic features. “I’d be the verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”
This story appears in the second volume out of four of W. Somerset Maugham’s Collected Short Stories. I think I’ll go out and look for my tobacconist’s store now, whatever that may be.