Monday, August 24, 2009

The price of everything: short story

I’ve got a favourite spot, between the Lloyd’s cash machine and the newsagent. There’s a closed-down office with marble steps up to the doorway, and a portico provides some cover from the rain. I sit on cardboard to keep out the worst of the cold coming up from the underlying stone. There’s a lot of competition for this pitch – location, you see, location, location, location, as I used to say when I was an estate agent, before buy-to-let turned into a passport to debt, taking home, car, job and wife with it. Maybe you knew me then – good old Flash Harry, king of the property jungle. Maybe you owe me one. More likely, maybe I owe you one. Hard luck, if so.
Anyway, about my spot. Begging is all about traffic, throughput. There’s a fraction of people who will drop you a coin as they pass – one per hundred, one per thousand, whatever it is. So the more go pass, the more you make. They say it’s dying out, begging, killed by the credit card. You get them, sometimes, walking past you patting their pockets, pretending they’ve only got plastic and so can’t give you the cash they otherwise would. Makes all the difference, I don’t think. And of course, the cash machine’s customers really haven’t got any coins.
You could argue these days that the traditional ‘price of a cuppa’ could easily be a note, but that’s not what it’s about. You used to get those stories about how you could get rich from begging, but they were lies, or at least, unrepresentative. If begging was hard, beggars couldn't do it. These are people who find remembering their name a challenge, washing a distant utopian ambition. Begging is what you do when you've run out of options. Every day there's the struggle, the desperate hope, putting the hours in until you've earned your target. If all you're feeding is your stomach, that's not so bad - a long morning will set you up. I wouldn’t want to be an addict - waiting for the cash to match the cost of a fix, penny by penny.
There are some people who can get £5 at a time - the posh lot, the buskers, slumming classical violinist or under-employed folk guitarists, who rake it in at Christmas by making the crowds feel good. I don't do that, spread the warm feelings. The best I can hope for is to be a lucky charm - sometimes passers-by reckon that if they give me money, they won't end up like me. So for me it's coins, one here, one there, Thank you, sir, Thank you love, Thanks, kid, adding up through the day.
They say that begging is like selling: it makes you cynical, eyeing up everybody as a possible mark. Not that I wasn't cynical before, but it's true, I guess. A lot of waiting in both jobs, of course. It's fun here, sometimes, watching everyone come and go. Best of all is the parking meter. For a start, you get to spot the liars who walk past you saying they've got no change, and then feed some into the meter. But there's the next bit, too - the traffic warden solemnly photographing the cars, checking his watch, reading the meter, then taking out his ticket pad.

It happened today, for example. A new BMW roars into the space, the driver, all suit and sunglasses, sprints into the shop, and comes back to find the red package on the windscreen. Oh dear, oh dear; my heart bleeds. Now the warden's come back, and the driver's arguing. The warden keeps calm.
'Surely, sir, if you can afford such a fine vehicle as this, you can find the parking fee?'
This doesn't go down well. The driver starts shouting about appeals and lawyers and complaints, and doesn't notice that the warden's speaking on his radio.
'You there!' the driver says, pointing at me, 'You saw it all - I was only there half a minute.'
I stand up and walk towards them, my legs stiff.
'What did I see?'
'You saw me arrive.'
'Did I? I don't remember you passing. Did you give me any money?'
'No, I . . .' He pauses as my meaning sinks in. He gets his wallet out. 'I was in a hurry then, but now - ' He fingers a £20 note. I turn to the traffic warden.
'He wasn't here long, you know.'
The warden nods grimly.
'Must just be your unlucky day, then, sir.'
The driver starts to put the note back in the wallet.
'Oi,' I say, 'I think that's mine.'
He shakes his head. But he doesn't notice what's happening behind him - the tow truck's now blocked his car in, and the crew is getting out of the cab. He looks around and starts shouting again. The traffic warden retreats and calls the police.
The driver sags in defeat, gets out his cash, pays the clampers, pays the warden. He looks at me in disgust. The feeling's mutual, mate. In minutes, the street clears.
I spot a pound coin in the gutter - that's my tea sorted for today, I think, so I head back to the hostel, feeling relatively positive for a change.
Tonight, no doubt, in some leafy suburb, in a stunning domestic residence enjoying extensive views, the driver's telling his uninterested wife about his day in the City, and how it cost him a hundred quid, bitterness curdling his stomach.

This story appears in File Under Fiction.

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