Short Story: Rich!

What made her do it? She would never know why she bent down that day to pick up the crushed bag which was starting to get soggy in the freshening summer rain. It was one of those sturdy paper bags that a takeaway comes in, lying near a gutter. Thick brown paper and stout card handles which usually reveal the contents to be hot, rich and spicy.

Maybe she was hungry, and instinctively reached out for it. Who knows? But as she picked it up gingerly by the handles, she caught a glimpse of something inside which made her quickly bundle it up into one of her shopping bags. She glanced round to make sure that no-one had seen her and hurried away, seemingly to get out of the rain.

Helen was not a young person, though she was not old. She was not tall, but yet, no-one would say she was short. She was not shy, not out-going, not silly, not sensible. She was just 'not anything'. She was average. She was dependable. No-one forgot to invite her to things because she would always turn up. Wearing suitable clothes, saying suitable things, with a suitable gift. But no-one thought of her first. She was never number one on the list. Sometimes, she would be halfway down the guest-list. Sometimes she would be 'Oh, and Helen, of course'.

Sometimes she worried about this, but today that was fine. She wanted to be Mrs. Average, walking along the road with average bags of average shopping. No-one look at me, 'La-la la-la la'. Walk along, no hurry. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Her ears were thrumming with it: Thump thump, thrum, thrum.

At last, she reached her front door. Key in hand, she burst through and dropped everything but the bag containing ‘The Bag’. Hurriedly, she took it out, ran upstairs to her bedroom and emptied almost a hundred thousand pounds onto her bed.

She stood, breathlessly transfixed. Staring down at the cash, the loot, the haul. The brown bag still dangling from one hand, empty now like a discarded snake-skin. The snake of avarice had slithered into her life.

What would you do? Jump on it? Land in it and roll around seeing how much of this newly-acquired wealth would rub off and turn you into one of the nouveau riche? Or did Mrs. Average go downstairs and make herself a cup of tea? Just as well: she hadn't shut the front door and there were shopping bags lying in a messy heap in the hall. One of the neighbours would have come along sooner or later to find out what had happened to Helen.

She sat at her kitchen table, cradling her tea cup in both hands with both elbows resting on the shiny surface. It is alright, she lived alone, so it didn’t matter. How long had she been there? The backs of her arms had gone numb so she took a sip of tea. It was freezing cold. Did she just? Had she? Was there? She rushed upstairs to take one more look at the bed. Yes, there was.

Well she couldn't keep it. It might be stolen. There would be something in the bag about where it came from. She looked about on the floor for the bag. There was nothing. Well, there was the bag, but nothing on the bag, or in it. That was not very helpful.

She started picking up the rolls of fifties. Each roll of notes was neatly folded and held together with pink elastic bands. The kinds that the postmen throw away all over the pavement. All the notes were old and all of them were fifty pound notes.

She took down her old small travel case from the top of the wardrobe and started packing the money into it just as if she were going away on holiday. A hysterical laugh escaped into the room. A money holiday. A holiday with money. She was only putting it into her bag for safe keeping. No, not 'keeping'. I mean, she wasn't going to 'keep it', just keep it in the bag – for now.

When it was all packed away, she knew that there was about eighty thousand pounds there, give or take, if she had counted correctly. She zipped it up and then hauled the heavy case back into its place on the wardrobe. Then she went around to the window and drew the curtains shut.

She stood uncertainly with her hands on the yellow, floral material. Closed curtains at five-thirty in the afternoon? She pulled them apart again firmly. That straightened the nets a little so it would look to an outside observer as if she had meant to do it all along. Then she straightened her skirt and rubbed her hands along it so that everything was straight.

Downstairs, she bolted the front door. Then she switched on the television set and waited for the news. She sat all the way through the national and local news to see whether any mention was made of a missing, oh, a missing small fortune for example? Nothing. Nothing?! Well it was probably too soon.

She decided the best thing to do would be to go to the police. Yes. She would take her little travel case to the police station and hand over the money. And then bring back the empty case. She would do the right thing and feel well in herself and then end up with a nice warm glow. There might be a reward.

She trundled her travel case downstairs, one step at a time. The cheerfulness of the hard, pink suitcase belied what was inside. There was no way anyone would think that she was carrying more money than she had ever seen down the street in a pink bag on wheels.

The rain had stopped now and it was threatening to be an extra bright evening. The type where the setting sunshine sets fire to a million little raindrops on every surface. Suddenly she felt like she was the centre of attention. Why was that little girl looking at her so intently? Could she see the money in the case? Was there something sticking out? Was the zip, which had never come undone, coming undone?

Was this dog following her for a reason? Could it smell the cash? She was right! It must have been drug money. Although she had never heard of a sniffer dog being a poodle before. But they must have them. It was a great disguise for a sniffer dog.

She came to the spot where she had found the paper bag. It was just a bit of pavement and guttering. Only really memorable because there was a bench just across the road, and it was a place she had to pass on a daily basis - although never previously quite so profitably.

But before she got there, she stopped and stared for the second time that day. There was an old man sitting on the pavement on the spot. He was crying. He was shabby and decrepit looking. A sort of Charlie Chaplin shabby, but without any of the knowing looks to camera.

His loose black trousers looked as if they may once have been a different colour. His thick, black jacket had thick, black holes. His white scraggly hair was wispy on his head and stubbly on his face. He was crying with his head in his hands. His body heaved uncontrollably and from time to time, his arms waved around his head.

Helen stared at him from across the street. She knew. She knew exactly what was making him cry like that. What else could it be? Too much of a coincidence. He had not noticed her. His bleary, reddened eyes were probably not looking around for shiny pink travel cases, but filthy old paper bags.

He stopped sobbing and wailed: “I've lost it. It was right here!” He waved his arms around above his head. Both arms: wildly around his head and yelled 'Stop it!”. Helen wanted to turn around and go back home. She was just about to turn. Her brain wanted her to turn around. Was the bag too heavy? What was going on? Turn around and walk back. This daft old man does not know you have his...

Life savings.

She glanced up to the heavens. Maybe for guidance, but there was nothing but a huge rainbow in the sky. It was bright! Deep, vivid colours. Nothing like the wishy washy ones she was used to seeing. All that rain...Oh great, there was the rainbow and she was obviously hauling around the pot of gold.

When she looked back down at the man, she now saw that he was not alone. Had she not noticed before? There was another little man, just as old, just as demolished, but only half the size. Where the first old man was sitting on the pavement, this little man was standing up to his full height beside him. And he was still shorter by a gnat's whisker.

As she watched, it became clear to Helen that the old man could not see his little companion. Or else, he never once looked at him. The little man was enjoying his sport tremendously. For he danced around him with a mean little smile on his face and poked and prodded him when he could get away with it. He dodged and ducked around the flailing arms. He seemed to be taunting him.

Helen felt herself edge nearer to try to hear what he said. But only slightly. The travel case felt heavier as if its wheels were digging in to the ground. She jumped suddenly when the old man shouted “Go away!” loudly.  But she relaxed as she realised he was not addressing her at all, but his little tormentor - who had grabbed a large chunk of the old man's hair and was pulling at it with all his might. His feet were dug hard into the old man’s back and his whole weight was set into pulling.

Helen could not take her eyes off the horrible little scene being played out on the pavement across the road. She slowly backed away until she was sitting on the bench. There were hardly any passers by and no-one to really go to the aid of a mad old man sitting in his own personal torment by the side of the road.

She turned her head slightly away and pretended to be waiting for someone. But out of the corner of her eye she still kept careful watch. At last she could make out some words. The little man did not have a high pitched voice as she expected, but more of a low, grumble. It was just on the edge of her hearing, as if it was the ground talking. “Where is it?” he was saying as he pinched and prodded and poked. “Where's my bag?” He continued. “I was going to give it you, you know. Today was the day!”.

“I don't want it!” the old man said, sobbing. “Not any more. Leave me alone.”
“But you always wanted it Albert. That was the deal,” came the rumble.
The old man was crying again. Tears were streaming down his face. There were tracks down his cheeks where the salty water had forged a channel through the grime.
“I could have been rich!” he sobbed. “I could have been happy!” he wailed.
“You were rich you fool. Didn’t I turn your grubby little savings into wealth? Have I skipped my part of the agreement?” The little man was standing in front of him and kicking his knees and shins as he sat.

The old man wailed again. “Oww! Go! You said if I lost it you’d go! It was an accident. Go away!” and he flailed his arms out in front of his shins trying to catch the imp. But he was far too quick. Dodge, kick. Jump, pinch. Then he was gone.

I don’t want it. Helen had heard it with her own ears. Good. She stood up quickly and briskly turned her back on the old man.

Her stomach was tingling. In her ears there was a little tickling feeling. Excitement? Guilt!? What? No, of course not. If you do the right thing and try to return lost property but the owner - ex owner - says that, well, what can you do?

She did not feel that the tickling was a grumbling sound. Because she did not know. Could not imagine! The hard pink travel case felt reassuringly heavy as she tugged it along on its wheels. It was all hers. The owner had said so.

Planning was not hard, all the way home. New car, holiday, whole new wardrobe. Give half her old clothes away to that silly Sally Perkins. Stuck up old...never mind.

You could take her shopping with you. That would make her really jealous! Again a strange little laugh escaped from her lips. What? Helen shook her head. Well, yes if they went to Oxford Street or somewhere like that... What was she thinking?

For the second time that day Helen burst into her house and ran straight upstairs. But this time she carefully shut the front door behind her. Up in her bedroom, she placed the travel case onto the bed so that she could look at all that glorious cash.  She unzipped it and... Where was it? Inside was one grubby old roll of fifties. Barely three hundred pounds. No!! What sort of weird joke was this?

You could have it all and more. said a grumble in her mind. As she heard this, in front of her, the case was full. More than before. Maybe twice as much. All this.

“What do you want?” She said out loud. A grumble like thunder. A laugh? She felt something kick her calf.

You will find out soon enough.
And then she heard: I want to sleep. The old man was so mean! Will you stay here and watch over me while I sleep? Sing to me!

Helen snorted to herself. Sure. Then she felt something pull her hair.

When she started singing there was a little scream. What’s that horrible noise? Oh your voice, it hurts my ears. Just sit quietly with me, I'll let you have your money soon. And gold! and diamonds!

Every time it went quiet and she thought she could leave the room she heard a little grumble or felt a little pinch in her side.

Helen sighed. A little afternoon of this for a case full of gold and diamonds later on! It would not last too long. She would find out what this little imp wanted and when he got it, she would be rich. Beyond her wildest, craziest dreams. Would you do it? Sing to an invisible thing? Sit alone in a room dreaming of diamonds the size of apples?

The next day was worse. Every time she wanted to move, there was an errand or a little job. All pointless, meangingless things. The sun! Draw the curtains! It’s too cold. It’s too hot. It’s too quiet.

When she asked about the riches, he said ‘Look in the case.’ The case was becoming full of diamonds: Ghostly shimmering lumps in one corner. Gold: Heavy lustrous pile in the middle. Rolls of money. She could not touch it quite yet. When she tried her hands passed through it. But she was so close. Every time she looked at it, it seemed to be more real. Soon, very soon now, you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams!

The next day was much worse. She got nothing to eat. The man was more demanding than a new-born babe. If she tried to ignore his demands, she was beaten and pulled about. The kicks were real. Her tights were laddered, her legs were becoming sore. There were bruises in her sides and arms. Her head was so painful from the constant hair pulling.

Get me a pillow. Get me a cushion. I need a book. I need a drink.

The money was real now. She could touch it. She nearly picked up one of the diamonds in her hands. As large as a fist. But it was getting hard to bear. She had had enough. It was more than she could take.

Glancing at herself in the mirror after three days. It was a shock to see the frazzled stranger staring back. Frizzled hair. Haunted eyes. There was a big bruise on her left cheek where the little man had caught her with a frying pan.

Was it worth it for the money? She took the case down and ran out of the house. What was happening to her? She halted on the drive. Was she just going to throw it all away? Diamonds! Big lumps of gold!

She could not drag the case off the property. It became too heavy. No, not just heavy. It was like it was built into the stone of the path. She stopped tugging at it when she realised it was not going to move.

She ran blindly. Not caring what she looked like. People have a good way of ignoring the uncomfortable. No tongues wagging, no-one looked at her face at all. This wild ragged woman. Who would? Everyone crossed to the other side of the street. Mad lunatics about these days. Best to avoid.

She came to the bench.

And on the bench there sat a man. Newly groomed, freshly laundered, brightly tailored.

“Albert?”

He jumped. No-one had called him by his real name since he was a child. No-one earthly that is. He was known as Alfie to all his friends. Until someone - something - came which knew his real name and his innermost being. His lust for gold. His unvarnished greed.

“Albert?” again. A frazzled woman with a bruised left cheek. He relaxed. For a moment he had thought... never mind, it was not what he had thought. Unless. He looked her deep in the eyes. She had the look of the haunted not the haunter.

“I see.” he said. “That’s where he went.”

“What can I do? He is relentless.” She sat down next to him. Already she had the air of someone who has glimpsed another world.

“You must give it away.” he said. “Give it all away, or lose it by accident.” He smiled. He could smile now after many years.

“What?” she seemed truly surprised. “But I’m so close! He says it’s just another few days.”
‘All that gold!’ she thought. And then she thought ‘My precious!’

He remembered his family and friends. Countless people who had warned him. Threatened, begged. He was always so close to having it.

He was better now. Himself. He thought of his training. He was a professional man. A judge. All those years, so many pointless days pursuing the thought of endless riches. He made up his mind.

“Where is he?” he said.

She took him uncertainly to her house. The shiny pink travel case stood rooted into the ground. But moved easily back into the house. Albert steeled himself against the onslaught.

She was not yet so immersed as he had been. It was just his luck, his amazing good luck that he had put the bag on top of his car. Complete chance that he had forgotten it and driven away.

He remembered the years of torment. But the effect on him was waning. His brain still knew, but his heart was stronger. Nothing. He could hear no rumbling laugh.

But it was obvious that Helen could. She stood, flinching, hunched and stooped. Obviously being kicked and punched with extra vigour for leaving for so long. He remembered what that was like.

The case.

They opened it together. Right there on the floor in the hall. After they had shut the front door of course. They both intook their breath sharply.

She had more ambition than he. His bag had been full of money. Fifity pound notes. It was going to be millions. Hers was full of gold and diamonds. A little bit of cash - but a lot of soft yellow gold. And huge diamonds. Not sized by the carat weight, but by the apple weight.

Albert stared. Beside him the woman was constantly carrying out little errands. He knew what it was like. Little, stupid, meaningless things. And if it wasn’t fast enough, then kicks, punches, names.

He reached out his finger slowly. The metal felt hard and warm. It was glowing.
You could buy a yacht with that. He let out a short laugh. Helen stopped. Puzzled. She was looking around, at a loss for what to do next. She seemed to be listening. She looked at Albert.

“OK” Albert said. That’s all. OK. He slowly pulled the zip closed all around the pink travel case. Then he was up. He grabbed the handle and turned to the door. For a few seconds he fumbled with the catch. Then he was off.

Helen felt something leave her. A weight. A heavy cobweb had been removed from her whole body. It had been the only thing keeping her going. Working, fetching, carrying. She crumpled to the floor. The front door was ajar. She lay with her head on the carpet of the hall and simply stared out of the door at the disappearing figure.



A. B. Syed

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