Monday, August 24, 2009

Sinners, all: short story

Kaz untied her apron and handed the till keys over to Tim.
‘It’s been quiet this afternoon,’ she said, nodding at the loners and couples scattered around the bar.
‘Maybe it’ll pick up,’ replied Tim in Antipodean optimism.
‘Maybe,’ said Kaz, doubtfully, ‘See ya!’
Tim wiped down the counter, glancing up at the TV screen showing a music video channel.

At a corner table, two men were drinking coffee. The tabletop’s accumulation of used crockery showed that they’d been there for a while. The two were of similar age: well-preserved late middle age, but were otherwise contrasted in appearance. One had a rosy face framed by bushy white hair and beard; the other was tanned, with a neat goatee beard, short black hair, and inquisitive eyes, the last effect heightened by a habitually-arched eyebrow.
‘What about sin, then, the Cardinal Sins?’ asked the man with the black beard, in the easy tone of a friendly argument long continued.
‘People get mixed up,’ replied the man with the white beard. ‘Cardinal Sin’s quite a precise and obscure theological concept. I don’t think anyone said they were supposed to be of universal application.’
‘But you’re cheating again – you always say things like that when you’re cornered.’
White Beard shook his head and wordlelly held up his empty cup.
‘More coffee?’ asked Black Beard. ‘Or is it time to move onto stringer stuff?’
‘Perhaps a malt whisky, thanks.’
Black Beard walked up to the bar. Tim was scowling up at the screen.
‘Shoulda been me!’ he said bitterly. ‘Anyway, what can I get you?’
Black Beard navigated the laden tray back to the table.
‘Envy’s still going strong,’ he said.
‘That’s not the point,’ said White Beard. ‘Sure, people commit sins, but they’re not defined by them. They can always choose to be better people.’
Black Beard surveyed the room. ‘What about this lot? I bet they’re all stuck by habit into selfishness.’
White Beard leaned forward. ‘I’ll take that bet.’
Black Beard offered his hand. ‘Shake on it, then.’
‘The usual stake?’ asked White Beard, solemnly.
‘It’s a deal.’
They sat sipping their drinks, waiting for something to happen.

The door was pushed open abruptly. A man in shirtsleeves rushed in breathlessly. ‘Can you help me?’ he asked the room generally, ‘there’s someone collapsed outside.’
A couple of the drinkers stood up and accompanied him out, returning a little later burdened by the body of a tramp, his clothes stained with mud and reeking of the street. They laid him on the floor, while onlookers cleared a space around him. Coats were offered as pillows or blankets.
‘I’m a taxi driver,’ the first man explained, ‘I saw him collapse on the pavement. Is anyone here a doctor?’
Heads were shaken firmly. After a pause, someone spoke up. ‘I’m a first aider,’ he said, coming forward and kneeling down to check the tramp’s pulse.
‘Hi. I’m Michael. Can you hear me? What’s your name?’
His eyes opened briefly. ‘Harry,’ he coughed.
Michael looked up. ‘Call an ambulance – he’s in a bad way.’ Mobile phones were brandished at once.
Harry’s eyes flickered and closed, and his breathing grew more laboured. ‘He’s arresting, I think,’ said Peter. ‘We’re going to need to do CPR.’
By now, most of the patrons had gathered round, offering help, advice, or just commentary. Peter recruited a couple of them to assist in the rotations of breathing and chest compressions.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic took over, efficiently collecting the victim.
‘Is there anything we can do?’ asked someone.
‘No thanks, we’ve got him now,’ the paramedic replied, closing the door and heading off, siren screaming.
Now that the drama was over, people seemed embarrassed, and soon most had gone.

‘All right, there’s quite a few helpful people here’, said Black Beard, ‘but what about the barman?’
‘Let’s go and see,’ said White Beard.
“What did you mean earlier,’ Black Bear asked Tim, ‘when you said it should have been you?’
Tim took some time to think back before the tramp’s intrusion.
‘Oh, that. That lucky bugger on the video was at school with me – now he’s a big star, rolling in money and girls, and I’m here, behind a bar. But back in the day, it was going to me who made it.’
He paused, tilting his head judiciously, then shrugged.
‘Still, he was the one who went for it, I guess. He put in the hours, practicing, extra classes, special courses, learning the instrument; I never had the patience. So good luck to him.’
White Beard smiled at Black Beard. ‘I win, I believe.’ Black Beard asked Tim for a packet of peanuts, then wordlessly handed them to White Beard.
‘It’s good to see that the Devil’s a man of his word,’ said God.
‘You know me of old,’ said the Devil, and they walked out into the night.

This story appears in File Under Fiction.

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