A Little Fiction – The Scam

The door pulled tight against its chain and a pair of dull, grey eyes peered out through the gap, squinting as they became accustomed to the bright sunlight.  “Yes,” said the tiny voice from within – a reedy uncertainty evident in its tone.  “Can I help you?”

Derek Fox smiled.  His hair was tousled and his faced was smudged with dirt.  He wore overalls bearing the name of a national house-building company.  He was very polite; so unusual these days.  “Sorry to bother you love,” he said, “But I’m working across the road at number seven and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve got a couple of slates loose.”

“You’re not the first person to suggest that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you already knew.”

“Joke,” she said.  “It was a joke.  Not a funny joke, but a joke.”

“Sorry?”

“You said that I had a couple of slates loose…”

The light of understanding dawned in his eyes.  “Oh, of course,” he said.  “A couple of slates loose.  You had me going there.”  He smiled.  “Do you want to have a look?”

“Sorry?”

“Your loose tiles.  Do you want to see them?”

“Oh, yes.  Just a minute.”  She closed the door while he stood uneasily on the step.  He shuffled his feet and glanced uncertainly over his shoulder.  He decided to give it to the count of five and then run.  You couldn’t be too careful these days…

He was just about to bail when the door opened and the old lady appeared, pulling on her coat.  Derek turned to walk back towards the gate when he felt her hand on his arm.  “A little bit unsteady on my feet,” she said.  “You don’t mind do you.”

He smiled.  “Here, let me show you these tiles, Mrs?…” he said, patting her hand as they walked.  

“Alice,” she said.  “My name is Alice.”  Together they walked along the path, through the gate and onto the street. 

“There, look.”  He pointed up to some uneven tiles on the roof.  This was one of Derek’s favourite scams, and it was always so easy, particularly when there really were a couple of dodgy tiles to point out.

“Oh dear, whatever should I do?” she asked.

“It’s cold out here,” he said.  “I’ll tell you what.  Let’s go inside where it’s warm, you make me a cup of tea and we’ll see what we can do.”  She nodded agreement and turned to walk back towards the house with Derek by her side.  “So easy,” he thought.

Inside the house Alice led him into a dark room.  The curtains were partly drawn and the ceiling pendant had no bulb in it.  As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Derek began to discern the nature of the furniture that surrounded him.  It was all of dark wood.  The dresser was tatty: one door hung from its hinges and a drawer front was missing.  The settee and armchair did not match, other than they were both equally threadbare.  There was no television, no radio and no coal in the fireplace.  It was cold.

Alice indicated the armchair.  “Sit down,” she said.  “I’ll make some tea.”  She left the room and Derek could hear the tap running as she filled the kettle.  Keeping one ear on her incessant conversation and the other on the bang and clatter of tea-making, Derek began to rifle through the dresser drawers, finding nothing but rubbish: cheap mementoes, old photographs and contorted cutlery.  No money, but that wasn’t unusual; old ladies often employed much more singular hiding places for their cash.  He would have to use his usual methods of extracting it.

He was seated, hands on knees, when Alice entered with the tea.  She placed the tray at his feet.  The metal teapot was badly stained, the two cups were chipped and did not match.  The sugar was in a dog-eared bag.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “But the milk’s gone off.  I hope you don’t mind.”  She poured the tea and handed a cup to Derek.  “Sugar?” she asked.

“No thanks love,” he said.  “Got to watch my weight you know.  Doesn’t do to be too heavy when you’re crawling about on roofs.”  She smiled and he pressed home his advantage.  “So, what are we going to do about your roof?”

“Thing is,” she said.  “I don’t have any money.”  He almost stood to leave then, before she continued.  “At least, not in the house.  I’ve got a few bob in the Post Office, but I’ll have to go and get it out.  How much is it going to cost?”

“Well, I’ll fit it in with my other work, so I can do it a lot cheaper than usual.  Let’s say five hundred quid shall we?”

“Five hundred pounds!  That sounds an awful lot for a couple of slates.  Perhaps I ought to get another quote…”

“Tell you what.  I’m already doing a job over the road, I’ll fit you in on their time.  What about if I say four hundred pounds?  It’d normally be a grand.”  Alice breathed deeply and nodded.  “O.K.”

Derek smiled smugly.  It always worked.  Now for the final coup de grace.  “Thing is, because I’m doing the job so cheaply, what I need to do is buy the materials for cash.  I can’t afford to pay the interest if I put it on my account, see.  So, I’m afraid I’ll need you to pay up front.  If you like, I can save you a bit of trouble.  Just give me your Post Office book and I’ll go and get the money while you put your feet up.  Then I can go straight round to the builder’s merchants and get things moving.  What do you say?”

Alice looked doubtful.  “Well,” said Derek, skilfully feigning hurt.  “If you don’t trust me…”  He put his cup down and rose to leave.

“No wait…” said Alice.  She lifted a small vase and retrieved the bank book from beneath it.  “There,” she said.

He took it and headed for the door.  “I’ll bring the book straight back,” he said.  “As soon as I’ve ordered the stuff.”

She took his arm.  “You’re a good lad,” she said and, for a moment, he almost felt guilty.  But only for a moment, and it soon passed.  They walked to the door.  Alice, somewhat unsteady, held on to Derek.  He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Lock the door when I’ve gone,” he said.  “Go and have a nap.  And don’t forget to put the chain on.”

She closed the door behind him and he turned to leave, carefully placing the bank book into his inside pocket.  This would be the last time he could pull this one around here, she was the sixth today and he didn’t want to outstay his welcome.  He drove his van away from the redbrick cul-de-sac and across the dual carriageway before stopping to open the savings book and check out what she had.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The account had been closed for years.  The stupid old trout!  He put the book back in his pocket.  He’d give her what for…  It was then that he realised that his wallet was missing.  At first he thought she must have… No, that just wasn’t possible.  It must have fallen from his pocket while he was helping her to the door.  She’d be keeping it safe until he went back with her bank book.  Of course.

He knocked on the door until his knuckles ached.  He looked through the letterbox and the windows.  Not a sign.  She must have gone out.  He hoped the silly old bat hadn’t dropped down dead.

The woman next-door opened her door just an inch.  Derek used his best smile.  “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said.  “But I’m a bit worried about the lady next door at number five.”

She looked him over.  “Me too,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the house has been empty for six months now, no sign of anybody even slightly interested in it, and then this morning the old lady came along and asked if she could have the keys for half an hour, said she used to live there as a child.  Well I saw no harm, there’s nothing in there anyway.  But, well to tell the truth, I saw you going in a little bit later and I thought, you know, that’s a bit funny.  Then you left and she followed just a few seconds behind you and made no effort to bring the keys back, jumped straight into her car and shot off, so that’s when I called the police.  Have you met detective constable Hargreaves?”

A Little Fiction – The Gold Coin

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Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

The old man placed the single gold coin onto the scales and peered myopically at the needle in the centre of the balance. ‘Doesn’t weigh enough,’ he said, glancing down over the rim of his glasses. ‘It’s not heavy enough for a sovereign.’
‘It’s not a sovereign,’ replied the man on the other side of the meshed metal grille.
‘I know that,’ said the old man. ‘I told you, it doesn’t weigh enough… and it weighs too much for a half sovereign.’
‘It’s not one of those either.’
‘I know that,’ sighed the old man, pushing the wire frame of his glasses back along the bridge of his nose. ‘I told you, it weighs too much.’ The old man shifted slightly in his seat and studied the man who had presented him with the unfamiliar gold coin. He was small. He was fidgety, nervous thought the old man. Better watch him.
The small man removed his hat and scratched his head. He was even smaller without the head gear. ‘Well,’ he asked, staring up, his eye line below the height of the counter. ‘Will you buy it?’
‘I don’t know. What is it?’
‘It’s a punt Éireannach.’
‘A what? A punt? They never made gold punts.’
The little man stared down at the floor, grappling with his thoughts. After a few moments he looked straight up at the man with the scales. He sighed deeply. ‘Leprechaun gold,’ he said. ‘It’s Leprechaun gold. From the end of a rainbow.’
The pawn broker readjusted his glasses and carefully studied the elvin man on the other side of the screen. He was even smaller than a more casual glance had led him to believe. Child sized. But he had a beard and long grey hair. He looked like an ageing cherub in a green twill suit. The uncle spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Leprechaun gold you say? From the end of a rainbow, you say?’
‘You musta seen it,’ said the little fellow. ‘The rainbow. You musta seen it yesterday.’
‘I saw the rainbow,’ replied the shopkeeper. ‘You’re saying that this gold coin came from the end of it?’
The dwarf nodded so violently that his hat flew from his head. He picked it up, dusted it and wedged it back in place, pulling it down firmly to his ears.
‘So, it is actually yours?’ asked the pawn broker.
‘I told you, it’s Leprechaun gold.’
‘And?’
‘And I’m a Leprechaun, hence it is mine.’
‘Is it not,’ enquired the dealer, leaning forward slightly in order to more closely observe the lovat Lillipution on the other side of the counter. ‘Is it not the property of whomever finds the end of the rainbow. Is that not what it is there for?’
‘Human myth,’ said the homoncule. ‘Leprechaun gold belongs to Leprechauns.’
‘So how come you’ve only got one coin? If it’s gold from the rainbow’s end, it comes in pots, doesn’t it?’
‘It was a small rainbow. I’m a lone worker. Don’t have the resources to deal with the big jobs. Have to leave those to the big boys – as it were…’
‘So you’re telling me that Leprechauns don’t put the gold at the end of the rainbows?’
The Leprechaun answered with nothing more than a derisive snort.
‘So who does put the gold there then?’
‘Ah,’ said the Leprechaun. ‘That’s the mystery, isn’t it?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Well of course not. Nobody knows.’
‘So you can’t possibly know who it actually belongs to.’
‘Well I found it.’
‘I went to London,’ said the old man in the chair. ‘And I found Buckingham Palace. Doesn’t mean I own it.’
The Leprechaun looked at him long and hard. Tension pulled so tight on the muscles of his forehead that his hat fell down over his eyes. ‘Ah feckit,’ he said. ‘D’youse want to buy it or not?’
‘I’ll give you fifty Euro,’ said the man.
‘Fifty Euro,’ spluttered the pygmy. ‘Fifty feckin’ Euro? It’s worth twice that.’
‘Take it or leave it.’
‘Fifty Euros? You’d rob a feckin’ Leprechaun.’
‘But you’re not actually a Leprechaun at all, are you?’
The little man pulled himself up to his full height, which allowed him to see just over the counter top. He seethed with impotent rage. ‘I want cash mind,’ he said at last.
The man counted out the notes and slid them under the grille, from where the emerald-hued elf snatched them and stashed them under his hat. ‘Not a feckin’ Leprechaun,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘I wish you good day sir.’ And with a ‘Pop!’ he disappeared. As did the coin in the pawnbroker’s scales…

A Little Fiction – The Mystery Tour

selective focus photography of red and white bus
Photo by Longxiang Qian on Pexels.com

I wrote this piece some years ago. I don’t remember why. It was filed, un-used until I stumbled across it many months ago when I was trawling through pieces I had saved on an old computer and never moved. I read it through, and almost immediately it confirmed for me the direction my planned blog should take: the journey we all must make as years pass by. Despite providing the inspiration for the general shape of the blog, I have never actually posted this piece. It’s a little long and the style is rather different to that which I have allowed myself to develop of late. I felt that it never quite fitted in, but I now realise that it is entirely what I’m doing here. It has all the themes and all the fears contained in most of what I do. So, as it is one year today and 124 posts since I started the blog, and it is kind of what the whole thing is about, I thought that you might like to read it anyway.

I hope you like it.

Things were not quite as Gerald had expected. Trouble was, Gerald didn’t really know what he had expected. The coach was lovely. Real luxury job: air-conditioning, on-board video, tea making facilities, proper flushing loo….. Looked almost brand new too. He had to admit that he hadn’t really taken it in as he got on. He didn’t know what colour it was. Somehow he couldn’t even remember seeing it from the outside at all. He remembered climbing up the steps and being surprised by all the happy faces. He had been the last person to get on and all but one of the seats were already occupied. He had walked the length of the coach to reach the seat, the other half of which was occupied by an angular-looking elderly lady. He had taken in the welcoming smiles of everyone aboard as he had made his way along, but he had paid particular attention to the face of the person with whom he would be sharing a seat.

The face was angular, but not hard. Its lines were softened by an almost permanent smile. They had hit it off almost at once. She giggled and laughed throughout their conversation, her face occasionally breaking into an almost childish grin. She clearly enjoyed every aspect of her life. She spoke lovingly of her family; of her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She spoke too of her mother and father, and it seemed strange to him that she made no distinction between those who came before and those who came after her. She pronounced upon them all with obvious affection, but with a curious distance which he did not quite understand. She became reticent only when he asked about her own life. “You must ask others about me,” she had said and would be drawn no further. Still she smiled. He became intrigued, wanting to ask questions and expecting to receive the kind of answers he knew he had no right to expect from so new an acquaintance. The close proximity of fellow travellers always engendered such curiosity within him. She spoke quietly, warmly, but carefully, refusing to become irritated by what he knew was his over-persistence. He felt ashamed at his ignorance yet angered by his own shame. She listened attentively, answered quietly, speaking with an aura of certain knowledge, and the smile, an expression of pure serenity, lingered.

And then silence fell between them. Not suddenly, but softly, like the dying leaves of autumn. Like a gossamer blanket, it smothered confrontation and quelled exasperation. It did not put a space between them, but drew them somehow closer together, like an invisible thread, yielding, but unbroken. It was a silence unburdened by guilt or envy. A silence without rancour. A silence between friends.

Gerald gazed through the window as the countryside sped by. He was unable to remember when he had become aware that the coach was moving. It seemed always to have been so. He did not recognise any of the landscape through which they were travelling, but he was not troubled. He tried to focus his mind, to envision his destination, but he could not. He tried, in vain, to recollect his reasons for being there, heading… where? And where was he travelling from? How could he not know? How could he not care? Strange, but his mind had always been so acute before… before?

Some strange Mystery Tour this, when, having driven for hours through an alien and indistinct landscape, he found himself being toured around the streets of his youth. He was amazed at how much he remembered: every house, every street corner, every face. He was intrigued to find that everyone else felt the same. How little things had changed.

Children played in streets, curiously devoid of traffic. The coach travelled quickly, but the children seemed almost unaware of its presence. They rode antiquated bicycles with asymmetrical wheels, wooden scooters with nailed-on pram wheels, and shared roller skates, two to a pair. They played cricket with a scrap of wood and a ball of newspaper bound with sellotape. They played football with a bald and punctured tennis ball. They played Hare-and-hounds, chasing around the streets, in and out of high-walled back yards, over part-demolished houses and derelict factories. It looked like a bomb site.

Familiar smells assailed his senses. Smells that brought back fragments of memory. Displaced and disjointed, but with a clarity that startled. The morning must of a used gazunder, damp clothes drying by a smouldering coal fire, bacon fat and beef dripping. Boiled cabbage. The warm, almost sweet, odour of damp walls and carpets, dark coal-houses, cool rain on hot concrete. Boiled cabbage. Oft-worn, unwashed woollen socks, the wooden floors of school house, school meals. And cabbage, cabbage, cabbage. Each fragrance carried a picture, like a photograph; sharply focused, brightly coloured, a moment frozen in time. The images over-laden with emotion; pleasure, pain and heart-ache, so that it seeped from them and overwhelmed him more acutely than the present. Yet with it all came a sense of warmth and well-being, a feeling that, come what may, all would be well. And cabbage.

Around him his fellow passengers stared into the middle distance, each caught in their own reverie, dreaming their own dreams, recalling their own past-lives. How could such a disparate bunch share such common memories? What was it about coach travel that encouraged such nostalgia and introversion? How strange that the general hum of conversation that had filled the bus throughout the opening miles of the journey, should have died so suddenly. It was as if a switch had been thrown. Conversation on/ conversation off. All communication drowned in a sea of remembrance and boiled cabbage.

Beside him the old lady (Why hadn’t he asked her name whilst she was still awake?) breathed softly and slowly. He could see the peace behind her eyes and he envied such tranquillity. He surveyed her features as if for the first time. They no longer seemed angular. They were strong; calm and assured. Reassuring in a way, but not angular. He closed his eyes and tried to remember her as he had first seen her, how long ago? He tried to assemble her face, like a police ‘photo-fit’, but she would not form. He kept seeing his own mother, his own grandmother, his wife and he could not tell them one from another. The features mingled, softened and became as one with his fellow passenger, so that he had to shake his head to try and clear the image from his mind. He felt nervous. Hair rose on the back of his neck, his cheeks flushed, heat prickled along his back. Why could he not remember? He concentrated his mind, attempting to create a mental picture of somebody, anybody, from his life, but all he could see was a single conglomeration of everyone he had ever known. When he opened his eyes and looked into those of his sleeping neighbour he saw the same face and he knew that behind her darkling eyelids, the face that she was seeing was his.

His mind whirled with bewilderment and he began to feel panic welling inside him. Why did he feel so confused? Why did he find it so difficult to remember his reasons for being aboard this coach? Where was he going, where was he coming from? How could a normal, well adjusted person forget such fundamentals? Perhaps he was dreaming. This journey had all the ingredients of a dream, but somehow he knew that it was real.

All his life had been like this. Lurching from one uncertainty to another. Never knew whether he was coming or going, his mum had said. God, she’d be rubbing her hands together if she was here with him today. He could almost hear her, “I told you so.”

The old lady stirred beside him, sighed deeply and stretched her creaking limbs. She saw him staring at her and smiled. “What’s your name?” he asked. He was aware that he should have given her time to collect her thoughts, to wake peacefully and gather her senses, but he had to know. He had to know now.
“Is it really so important to you?”
“At the moment, yes, I think it is.”
“Do you know why?”
He shook his head sadly and gazed beyond her and through the window to the trees and fields and buildings that flew past in a hazy blur. He could see nothing, yet he could see it all. “Why am I so confused?”
“Sssh,” she said. “Watch the video.”

He raised his eyes to the screen above his head, it was alive with colours. They swirled and twisted, forming convoluted patterns of light and texture. Familiar sounds surrounded him, overlaid and entwined; a cacophony of noise, overwhelming and enveloping. Slowly, but slowly, both sight and sound resolved, reformed and coalesced into something recognizable. The pictures were of the streets through which they had passed earlier in the day. The sounds were the same. It was as if the journey had been filmed and was now being shown on the bright video screen. Only the pictures were brighter, even clearer. He was certain he could detect the smells. Cabbage. And he could see faces. He could see his own face in amongst the children, hear his own voice. The pictures overwhelmed his senses, the sounds reverberated inside his head. His whole life was there before him.

With a huge effort of will he dragged his eyes away from the screen and looked at those around him. Each of them was watching the ‘movie’ with the same mixture of fascination and bewilderment etched upon their faces. He knew that what they were seeing were scenes from their own lives’ and that they too were just beginning to understand the full implications of this journey. He was overwhelmed with the realisation, and yet he was at peace. He knew that soon this transition would be ending, the expedition over. He could not comprehend the nature of his destination, but he knew it was a place from which he would never leave.

He turned to the old lady and she saw understanding in his eyes. She smiled, as she had smiled when they first met, minutes, hours, a life-time ago.
“Muriel,” she said. “My name is Muriel.”

 

Thank you for joining me on my journey so far.

A Little Fiction

A Little Fiction – New Book (Title Unknown) – Introduction (Conversations with a Bearded Man part one)

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

I was going through some old files on my computer when I found this. It is just titled ‘New Book – Title Unknown’. I thought you might like it…

i.

The first time I saw him he was peering under the bonnet of a car, pulling at wires and whistling “Blowin’ Free”.
“Wishbone Ash,” I said.
“You know them?” he asked. He neither looked my way, nor ceased his wire pulling. I took a couple of steps backwards to stand alongside him. “Every note,” I said.
He lifted his head from his work and peered at me. He had a smudge of oil across the bridge of his nose that I wanted to wipe away. He didn’t speak. I fidgeted, unnerved by the silence. I looked down at the engine. “You got a problem?” I asked.
“Just looking for something,” he said.
“Anything I might know?”
“I think there’s a sensor.”
“What kind of sensor?”
He straightened his back and looked at me properly for the first time, swatting his hand across his face, aiming for something that as far as I could see, wasn’t there. And then he leaned back under the bonnet and recommenced his wire pulling, but I noticed that he’d shifted over a little, just enough to allow me to stoop down at his side. I peered inside.
“The lights,” he said finally.
“The lights?”
“The lights. They know when I’m coming. They turn red… always.”
I stared at the engine, uncertain whether he was serious. He could have been psychotic, or neurotic, one of them, I’m never sure. He turned towards me, his face now only inches from my own. I realised he wore spectacles and it struck me as strange that I hadn’t noticed them before. Underneath his beard his face was tanned, not overly, but he had a weatherworn skin that actively defied any attempt to age him. There was something, I don’t quite know what, but there was something in his eyes. Was he mocking me? I felt uneasy and I realised that he hadn’t blinked. I don’t know why I noticed that. Why should I notice that? He turned back to the engine and pulled enthusiastically at a wire that might just have been very important.
“I don’t know too much about cars,” I said, “but I don’t think you want to go pulling too many of those.”
He grinned, suddenly and fleetingly and I wondered whether I had imagined it.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I know I’ll never find it, but it’s important that they think I’m looking.”
He shook his head in a theatrical way and eased himself upright. I followed and he closed the bonnet.
“I don’t drive as much as I used to. Don’t seem to have much of a place to go these days.” We lapsed into silence again.
“Well,” he said, wiping his hands on his trousers.
“Yes,” I said. “Well…”
He held out his hand and I shook it. “Better be going, I suppose,” he said.
“You have oil on your nose.” I pointed and he wiped across his face with his sleeve. The oil spread further, the stain became paler.
“OK?” he said.
“OK.”
I continued on my way and he wandered off across the road ahead, when a thought struck me.
“Your car,” I shouted after him.
“My car?”
“Your car, you haven’t locked it.”
I could see the amusement bubbling across his face as he slowly turned away. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not my car.”

© Colin McQueen 2019