“Looked like the guy could use some help,” said Sheila, nodding back towards the underpass from the cinema. Huddled in a shabby black greatcoat, a man with a grizzled beard and unkempt hair sat on the cold concrete, a cardboard sign clutched between blackened fingers. ‘Hungry and homeless’. Except he’d spelt it ‘homeles’, with only one ‘s’. In front of him, a cap with some coppers lay on the ground. They wouldn’t stop the hunger for five minutes. Sheila began fishing around in her handbag. “Here, Tony, hold this.” She gave me her bag and started back to the underpass.
It was easy to ignore a down-and-out, someone who represents a world you don’t want to know about, when you were streaming past with other cinema-goers. Not so easy now the streets hereabouts were empty and there were just the two of us and the poor soul under the bridge, sitting staring into space in the chill October air. I walked over to the canal that ran beside the path and gazed into the black water, wondering if anything was alive in that strange, dark, oil-polluted world. Far off, the clock in the town square struck the chime for a quarter to eleven.
Suddenly I heard a scream. I turned and my blood ran cold. The tramp had come out from the underpass and was standing, his arm clamped around Sheila’s neck, holding something against it that glinted in the nearby yellow streetlight.
I needed a weapon. I looked around but there was nothing, just empty pavement with some old chip papers blowing around in the wind. I scooped them up anyway and stuffed them into a coat pocket. Feeling fearful for Sheila, I approached. “Hi, let my wife go … please. I’ll give you cash. Whatever you want. Fifty, a hundred?”
The man gave a gruff laugh. “Listen guv’nor, you must think I was born yesterday.” His arm tightened around Sheila’s head, bending it back so that more of her neck was exposed. The knife was held against it so tightly I could see beads of dark blood along its edge.
I could feel adrenaline rushing through my body. “Look, put the knife down and we can talk about this.” I could see him thinking, his eyes darting around, looking out for anyone coming. The path back up to the main street where there would be lights, cafes still open, civilisation … was deserted.
“Look, guv’nor, I don’t want pennies or a few quid. I want some serious cash. Now, you’ve got her handbag. Don’t tell me there ain’t a credit card or two in there? Surely you can see I’ve got nothing to lose. I’d welcome a nice warm prison cell right now, and I’d get guaranteed food and accommodation for the next twenty years for murder.”
Sheila’s voice was strained with the pressure on her windpipe. “Tony, please, give him the handbag.”
As I grew closer I could hear Sheila’s panting breath in the suffocating silence and see it misting the air, smell a waft of urine and see the man’s eyes – wild, bloodshot and staring, see his filthy fingernails pressing the blade against my wife’s neck. I reasoned that without the PIN codes the cards would be of no use to him. I held out the bag. “Here you are, now let her go.”
Then, coming down steps from the high street behind us, voices. “Listen, ducky, I’m tired, I’ll just do us a couple of poached eggs ….” Two young men holding hands approached, their voices trailing off as they saw the set-up. The shorter of the two spoke out as they approached. “I say, let this lady go, you rotter.”
“Fuck off, I hate queers. Ain’t none of your business, anyway. I’ll do the pair of you too if you don’t piss off.”
I don’t know why but on impulse I reached into my pocket, screwed up some chip paper and flung it at the tramp. It bounced harmlessly off his face but in that split-second, distracted, he relaxed his grip on Sheila and she wriggled her head out of the arm lock. Then the impossible happened. The young man who had just spoken took a running jump and drop-kicked the tramp in the neck.
The man gave out a squeal like a pig clubbed on the snout, turned and half-walked, half-fell into the dark water of the canal. I wondered if he was already dead from the kick. His greatcoat spread out like a shroud, then he sank like a stone.
“Tony, help.” Sheila was clutching her neck; blood was soaking her dress. “There are tissues in my bag.”
I gave her a wad to stem the bleeding. The two guys had disappeared. I picked up the knife and walked back to the underpass to the tramp’s sign. I tore it into pieces and hurled it into a nearby bin. Then I picked up his cap. It contained a couple of pounds in change. A name strip had the initials Q.E.D. How strange. Quentin, Quinn, Quincy? If it was even his. It didn’t matter now. I tucked the cap in around the knife and coins and hurled it into the black water to join its owner. Would he be missed? Would anyone care? In the distant town square the clock began to chime eleven.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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