Ringo leaned against the grimy brick wall and stared longingly at the peddler's cart. He hadn't eaten a thing since he'd run away from the workhouse the previous afternoon, and he was starving.
Last night he'd been too terrified to even think about food. Curled up in the cramped, smelly doorway of an abandoned flophouse and struggling to sleep, he'd been too worried about being caught by Mr. or Mrs. Bumble – or worse yet, by the police! But now his stomach was growling and aching with hunger. A fleeting vision of Mrs. Bumble's rust-stained vat of tasteless gruel danced before his eyes, seemingly taunting him. He felt like crying.
Then he spied a small boy in a dark tweed cap passing behind the peddler's cart. The boy walked with a sense of purpose, never meeting the peddler's eyes. As he stepped away from the cart, the pocket of his torn jacket appeared to be bulging with a newfound bounty.
Ringo followed the young thief with his eyes. The boy skipped past a woman selling violets. He tipped his hat to her and smiled, then dodged into an alley. Ringo summoned his courage and ran after the boy. When he caught up with him, the small boy was sitting on a dirty doorstep, biting into an apple. Ringo watched him eat with a mix of envy and anger.
The boy in the tweed cap noticed his new companion, but said nothing at first. He chewed a few more bites of his apple, then brought his hand to his chin to wipe away a dribble of juice. "What are you looking at?" he finally asked Ringo. "Me, or the fruit?"
"Both," Ringo replied. "You stole that apple, didn't you?"
The boy shrugged. "Stole is a relative word. I'd prefer to say I just moved it, from one place to the other."
"From the peddler's cart to your mouth!" Ringo stated accusingly.
"No," the boy corrected him. "From the peddler's cart to my pocket, and then from my pocket to my mouth. I'd never be so daft as to start eating something right after I pinched it. I'd be caught red-handed for sure."
Ringo sighed and gazed wistfully at the apple as the boy took another bite.
The young thief chewed thoughtfully on his purloined fruit, then tossed the apple's core onto the cobblestone path at his feet. After a long, drawn-out moment of silence, he looked up and met Ringo's eyes. "I take it you're hungry."
"I'm bloody starving," Ringo admitted. "Could you…could you please teach me how you did that? How you took that apple without the peddler noticing?"
The boy smiled. "It's an art. I was born with a talent for thieving, I'll have you know. Though I have perfected my craft under the tutelage of my esteemed teacher, Mr. George Fagan. Perhaps you've heard of him?"
Ringo shook his head.
The boy laughed and stood up, offering Ringo his hand. "My name's Davy Jones, though people call me Dodger. 'The Artful Dodger', to be precise."
Ringo shook his hand. "I'm Oliver. But people call me Ringo."
Davy examined Ringo's hand. "You're not wearing any rings," he noted.
"That's right. I'm too poor to buy any," Ringo agreed. "I got my nickname because the governor at my workhouse was always boxing my ears, and I'd complain about the ringing I'd always hear in my head afterwards."
"Did your complaining make that wanker stop hitting you?" Davy asked.
Ringo shook his head once more.
"Pity," Davy said. He examined Ringo's face carefully. "You know, you have a genuinely pathetic look about you – those big, sad, blue eyes that turn down at the corners, and your oversized nose. You look a bit like a beagle. I should think people would feel sorry for you."
"Well, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble certainly didn't," Ringo replied.
"Hhmm," Davy mumbled. He thought in silence for another long moment, then leaned back against the wall and smiled. "You know what, mate? I've got an idea. I want you to walk up to the cart where the baker is selling fresh meat pies, and engage him in a conversation. Ask him the price of his wares."
"But I haven't any money," Ringo whined.
"I know that!" Davy replied. "Just do what I say."
Davy grabbed Ringo's hand, led him out of the alley, and pointed to the baker's cart. Then he lost himself in the crowd of pedestrians. Ringo sighed, then squared his shoulders and approached the baker.
As Ringo had anticipated, the baker had little patience for him and ordered him to leave immediately if he couldn't pay for any food. Ringo hesitated by the side of the cart, not sure if Davy might be mad at him for somehow messing up his confusing plan. But then the baker raised his hand in anger. Ringo ran back to the alley from whence he had come.
And there he found his new friend Davy Jones, holding two meat pies in his hands and smiling broadly. "I think we might make good partners," he announced as he handed Ringo one of the pies.
Ringo ate the food greedily. He offered no arguments as Davy laid out his proposal to work as a thieving team, with Ringo providing a pathetic distraction while Davy pilfered whatever goods he fancied. Ringo licked his fingers clean, then agreed to follow Davy to the home of his teacher, George Fagan.
To Ringo's surprise, George's 'home' was merely a large room in a deserted warehouse, bursting with dirty urchins ranging in age from five through thirteen. He gulped nervously, realizing that he was probably older than most of the children and might not be welcome. But Davy introduced him to George and presented his plan.
George eyed Ringo carefully.
"What's your last name?" George asked.
"I haven't got one," Ringo answered. "I'm an orphan."
"He means he's a bastard!" shouted a man's deep voice from the far corner of the room.
George rolled his eyes. "Don't mind Bill. He's just leaving."
"I'll be back for the rest of my money tomorrow!" Bill shouted. He exited the room through a back door, slamming it behind him.
"Right," George said. He asked Davy to outline his plans for Ringo in more detail, then shrugged. "If you think you can teach your little orphan friend to rob people blind like you do, Dodger, then go ahead. But don't come running back to me if you get caught. As long as Ringo can carry his weight, he's welcome to stay with us."
Davy winked at Ringo. "For a long time," he assured his new friend.
Davy grabbed an empty wallet off one of Fagan's shelves and slipped it into his back pocket, then walked back and forth in front of Ringo, encouraging him to steal it. It took Ringo several attempts to remove the wallet without Davy noticing, but after Ringo successfully accomplished the feat three times in a row, Davy snuck up to George while he wasn't looking and slipped the wallet into his back trouser pocket. Then he motioned for Ringo to attempt another steal. Ringo slipped the wallet out of George's pocket with the lightest of touches, then laughed as Davy started to cheer.
George turned around and faced the boys. "That wasn't bad," he admitted. "Though I did feel the wallet smacking my bum as you lifted it out. Keep working on it."
"I think he's ready," Davy pleaded.
George shrugged. "Well, go ahead and try then. Lord knows we need some more cash. But be careful."
George scrunched down into a squat so he could meet Ringo's eyes. "Watch out now. Take care. Beware of soft shoe shufflers, dancing down the sidewalks."
Ringo furrowed his brow. "Huh?"
Davy laughed. "He means stay away from his brother, Paul Fagan. He runs a similar line of business in this part of town, but you don't want to mess with him."
"Okay," Ringo agreed. He turned to leave.
George grabbed him by the shoulder and held him back. "Watch out now," he warned Ringo. "Take care. Beware of falling swingers, dropping all around you. The pain that often lingers in your fingertips…"
Davy grabbed Ringo's hand and pulled him away. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll make sure he stays away from your brother John too."
Ringo's heart beat rapidly. Since leaving George Fagan's flat, he'd managed to steal a wallet off an elderly parson and a coin purse off a harried young mother. He'd felt a rush of guilt after the second theft, but Davy had assured him the finely dressed woman looked like she wouldn't miss the money.
Then Davy pointed to a fat man waddling slowly through the middle of the street. "Go after him! He's an easy target!" Davy ordered Ringo in a loud whisper. "There's no way that hippo can outrun you."
Ringo nodded, then approached the gentleman. He stalked him slowly and hid behind other pedestrians while he scoped out the position of the man's wallet. Then he inched up behind the burly stranger, slipped his hand into the man's trouser pocket and pulled out his billfold.
The man immediately turned around and shouted at Ringo. "You little thief! I'll get you!"
Ringo dropped the wallet and took off running, his heart pounding in his chest. He ran down the closest alley, then turned and ran through a maze of other small, unmarked streets. He hid for a long moment in a recessed doorway, then started running again blindly, turning into one alley after another until he was thoroughly lost.
He looked back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of Davy's familiar face and praying that he wouldn't spy the fat man's. But he saw no person that he recognized. After his heart stopped racing, he started walking back down the streets, trying to figure out where he was. Then he heard a man's voice sing out:
"Oliver! Where are you, Oliver?"
Ringo's heart started pounding again. He clutched the closest doorframe for support and started counting to ten slowly in his head, but before he reached the number seven, the man's voice sang out once more:
"Oliver! C'mon, you sweet lad. Come back to Fagan. I'm here, little one, waiting for you!"
Ringo sucked in a deep breath, then started walking towards the source of the call. He spied a tall thin man in a ragged coat, wearing torn gloves and dirty porkpie hat. A pair of lopsided spectacles rested on the bridge of his long nose. His thin lips were set in a worried frown.
"Oliver!" the man cried out once more. "Come to Papa, baby!"
Ringo approached the man warily. "My name is Oliver," he said. "And I take it your name is Fagan?"
The man scowled at him. "Go away, you little brat. I'm looking for my kitty." He turned around and called into the next alleyway, "Oliver! Come home!"
A mangy looking Jack Russell terrier came running up the road towards the man, carrying a rope of sausages in his mouth.
The man crouched down and petted the dog's forehead. "Good boy, Dodger. Good boy. But we need to find little Oliver. Where is our sweet little pussy cat?"
The dog dropped the sausages on the ground. The man picked them up and shoved them into the pocket of his filthy coat. Then the sorry looking twosome started exploring the alleyway. The man lifted the lids off garbage bins and yelled, "Oliver!" into the collected debris, while the dog sniffed wildly at every crevice he could fit his nose into.
Ringo fought back the urge to help the pathetic pair in their search for for their lost companion. But then a small orange tabby came limping into the alley. Its left ear was torn and its right eye was swollen. A large patch of fur was missing from its tail. It howled when it saw the terrier, then lifted its head, smelled the sausage in the man's pocket, and started weaving back and forth between the man's legs, purring softly as it rubbed against his ankles.
The man bent down and picked up the cat. "There's my good boy," he cooed. "Was him in a fight? Him looks like him was. I'll bet the other pussy cat got the worst of it, that damn little bugger! Come on, love, let's have us some dinner. Dodger brought us some yummy nummy sausages."
The man leaned against the nearest brick wall, then slid down with the cat still cradled in his right hand and plopped onto the ground with a loud thud. He pulled the meat out of his coat pocket and started feeding it to both of his pets. "Whoever said John Fagan can't take care of his own?" he asked no one in particular.
He petted the cat softly, singing a nonsensical waltz about tangerine trees and marmalade skies. The cat opened its mouth to take another bite of sausage, then bit the man's finger instead.
"Goddamn you, you little bastard!" he cursed. He hurled the cat on the ground, shook his hand frantically, then brought his finger to his mouth and sucked on his blood.
"Don't you dare bite the hand that feeds you!" he admonished the cat, who was blissfully ignoring him and gorging on a loose link of sausage that was lying on the cobblestones. "Christ! I oughta…"
Ringo snuck away from the trio before he could hear the rest of the man's threat. He slunk down the alleyways, trying to retrace his steps. He stared hopefully at the street corners, looking for legible signs or a noticeable landmarks. But he found no road markers, and all of the buildings that surrounded him boasted the same grey, grungy sameness. At long last, he heard a boy's voice cry out:
"Mr. Fagan! I'm here! Wait for me! Don't start without me!"
Ringo spotted the child who was making the racket and chased after him. He followed the small, blonde boy into an unmarked building and up a long, narrow wooden staircase. When he emerged from the stairwell, he found himself in another large, abandoned storage room that looked remarkably like the place where Davy had taken him. The room was filled with young boys, dressed similarly to the occupants of George Fagan's flat. But George Fagan was nowhere to be seen.
In his place, stood a tall man with a boyish face, a mop of dark hair, and a pair of big brown eyes set off by high, arched eyebrows. He wore a long green coat with a black collar, a small black hat, and an obviously false beard glued to his chin. He tossed a reproachful look at the blonde boy.
"You're late again, Oliver!" he chided. "Learn how to be on time!"
Then he turned to the assembly of children. "C'mon lads, let's take it from the top!"
He motioned to a thin man sitting by a worm-holed spinet. The pianist put his hands to the yellowed keys of the instrument and started pounding out chords. The tall man waved his hands about in a series of peculiar gestures and started singing along to the musical accompaniment:
"In this life…one thing counts
In the bank…large amounts.
I'm afraid these…don't grow on trees.
You've got to pick a pocket or two!"
Ringo stared in amazement as the man finished his verse, then invited the boys to start singing along with him. They all pointed their index fingers at the lately-arrived, blonde child and started chanting, "Large amounts don't grow on trees!" in a high-pitched chorus. Then the man began chastising the blonde boy in a sing-song voice. With a grand theatrical flourish, he pulled a set of props out of a small wooden box – a leather wallet, a pocket watch on a gold chain, a long red scarf – and led the assembly of children in a choreographed mime of thievery. Soon all of the occupants of the large room were dancing around in unison while they sang over and over, "You've got to pick a pocket or two!"
Ringo felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw Davy Jones snickering at him.
"I see you've found George's brother Paul, the soft-shoe shuffler," he laughed.
Ringo laughed back. "Is this bloke for real?"
"He's putting together a show that he hopes to premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre," Davy explained. "It's based on his brother George's business enterprise."
Ringo nodded. "I think I met George's third brother too – John."
Davy spun his index finger around his temple in a rude gesture to imply that John was crazy, then dug his hand into his pocket. He pulled out a finely tooled leather wallet stuffed with cash, opened the billfold, and flicked through the pound notes.
"Look what I picked up after you took off running," he said. "The fat man's wallet! He was too busy huffing and puffing after you to notice that you'd thrown it on the street. But I saw it."
Ringo's eyes grew wide as he eyed the fat wad of bills and noticed the denominations printed on the pound notes. "Either that's funny paper, or baby, we are rich men!"
Davy frowned. "We have to give this wallet to Fagan. We work for him."
Ringo's face fell.
Davy shrugged and feigned a smile. "Well, you know what they say, money can't buy you love."
"Dash it all," Ringo said, grabbing at the wallet. He counted the cash, then stuffed it back inside the billfold with obvious regret. "Your lovin' gives me a thrill, but your lovin' don't pay my bills," he groused.
Davy hesitated briefly, then removed two pound notes from the stash, handed one to Ringo and slipped the other into his own pocket. "I'll consider this a finder's fee for the two of us, before we hand the wallet over."
Ringo's shoulders slumped further down. "You and me, chasing paper, getting nowhere."
Davy thought for a long moment, then took out the rest of the money and distributed it between Ringo and himself. Then he tossed the empty billfold on the floor of Paul Fagan's dance studio, draped his arm around Ringo's shoulder and started to sing: "Two of us, standing solo, spending someone's hard-earned pay."
Ringo focused a curious gaze on his new friend. "Do you mean…?" he asked hesitantly.
Davy grabbed two small coin purses off a tabletop and started shaking them like maracas as he continued to sing, "Consider yourself…part of the furniture."
Ringo continued to look at him quizzically. "Part of the furniture?" he repeated. "What the hell does that mean?"
Davy punched Ringo's shoulder. "What I'm trying to say is, let's be partners!"
Ringo smiled broadly and slapped Davy on the back. "Alright then. But let's not worry about that furniture bit. Just give me money. That's what I want!"
Based on the novel "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens (1837-39), and on the films "Oliver!" directed by Carol Reed (1968) and "Oliver & Company," produced by the Walt Disney Company (1988). Also inspired by the coincidental appearance of future Monkee Davy Jones on the Beatles' iconic American television debut. Jones portrayed the Artful Dodger alongside the Broadway cast of "Oliver!" on the same night that the Beatles performed for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show.