“Just because my father is a Classics professor at Oxford, doesn’t mean I want to wear Guarinos lilies in my hair and retire to the tents of Persia!” exclaimed Helena.
Her husband, Stephen, sighed. “I know, darling, but surely you could aim higher than doling out food to tramps!”
Helena would go out every Friday night to meet Tom, a man who lived in an old railway signal box. He’d collect provisions from supermarkets, stuff that was beyond their sell-by date, and that they daren’t re-date. Let the tramps and ‘down-and-outs’ take the risk. Tom, Helena and sometimes a companion or two would drive a converted van out to a railway bridge and, beneath it, give out cups of soup, burgers, and re-heated chips to the down-and-outs who existed there. She felt a rising anger. “Aim higher than helping those in need, you mean?”
“Why don’t they want to work, then?”
“They’re human beings, Stephen, like you and me, just that they’ve fallen on hard times.”
“Hard times, pfft! Let them get a nine-to-five job like everyone else!”
“Everyone I know works ten-hour night shifts or they’re self-employed and work every hour God sends.”
“You know some odd people then.”
“Yeah, nurses and restaurateurs. Weirdos.”
Stephen turned back to his Daily Telegraph, Helena’s sarcasm lost to the editorial column.
It was almost dark when the van pulled up beside a blackened arch under a railway bridge. Tonight, there were just Helena and Tom. Helena cut the engine. There was the sound of a distant train, clattering into the distance, and a murmur of traffic, then … silence. Outside, she lowered a flap in the side of the van to form a counter, whilst Tom went around inside, checking urns, griddles, and hot plates. Light from the interior spilled out to form a benevolent yellow pool, nullifying a glaring spotlight above on the bridge.
Tom tipped a basinful of fried onions onto a hotplate and soon the smell and sizzling filled the chilly autumn air. The odour began to radiate outwards, and like drops of magical essence on the breeze, began to draw shadows, blackened and shuffling, out of the darkness.
“You know this could be our last month,” he said.
Helena nodded as figures approached, heads down, hands stuffed into pockets of heavy black coats. The van needed a thorough overhaul, refitting and repairs. They’d been quoted nearly eight thousand pounds. She knew that she and Stephen could afford it. She’d mentioned it in passing, to a shrug and a change of subject. Paying with her own money wasn’t an option either. Stephen would find out and go ballistic. It could even mean the end of their marriage. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, she thought, but with two young children, it didn’t seem an option right now.
She looked up into a pair of translucent grey eyes in a lined face, framed by a straggly grey beard. She recognized the man. They said his name was Andy and that he was once a musician in a band, a household name in the dim and distant past. “Hello.”
He grimaced, showing yellow and blackened teeth. “No soup, just burger and chips.”
“Would you like onions?”
Behind her, Tom began shovelling steaming chips into a carton. She noticed a strange look in the tramp’s pale eyes, as if he wanted to say more, then he turned away, standing to one side to let the next ghost come forward.
“Stephen, I know you’re not going to like this, but I have to ask a favour. You might want to sit down.”
Stephen gave Helena a quizzical look and plumped himself down onto the emerald green leather of a sumptuous armchair.
The phone rang and Helena answered.
“Helena, it’s Tom, look, can you speak?” Tom had met Stephen once and decided once was probably enough.
“Er, I’m with Stephen, we’re just about to discuss it.”
Her husband looked at her with an expression she didn’t recognise.
“Look Helena, there’s no need. Someone sent a banker’s draft for eight grand this morning!”
“I don’t know, but it’s kosher. There’s just a printed note. It says, ‘Not everything is as it seems, yours, A. Downandout.’”
Helena felt like she wanted to jump in the air and punch the lampshade with joy. “I’ve got to go, Tom, thanks for letting me know. Thanks so much.” She turned to her husband.
He raised his eyebrows.
“That was Tom.”
“So I gathered.”
“Er, he wanted to discuss going out on Saturdays instead of Fridays, that’s all I wanted to talk to you about.”
To her surprise, Stephen got up, came over and hugged her, kissing her cheek. “That’s fine darling, whatever you want.”
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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