By Jane Varley
When I retired I moved to the Hope Valley and time and space allowed me to renew my interest in short story writing. It is a form I admire for its economy and punch. I love perfectly formed small things!
The girl was there again. Sitting at the foot of the wall; still, composed. Begging silently, a small bowl placed on the paving stone by her feet. She had something of the quality of a medieval Madonna in her pale, oval face. Rampant Virginia creeper hung over the old stones and climbed the blue and gold wrought iron railings behind her.
The girl did not look up. Ruth walked briskly by. She was on her way to the bank heavily weighted with coin in an old shopping bag. It was Ruth’s job, from time to time, to empty the coin box of the vending machine at the academic library where she worked, and to take the money to the bank. First she sorted it into 10s, 20s, 50s, £1s, then she counted it into neat piles. Finally, when she had checked and double checked the total amounts, she put each denomination into a marked plastic bag. It could be as much as a hundred pounds if she left it over a week. The bag was always pretty heavy. Carrying it along the street made her feel self-conscious; she was sure everyone she passed knew that the mousey little secretary scuttling along the pavement had an interesting sum of money in her Sainsbury’s shopper.
The next time the mission to the bank came round, Ruth hoped the girl wouldn’t be there with her almost empty box. But she was there. Ruth fixed her eyes firmly on the pavement and concentrated on not walking on any of the cracks between the paving slabs. She was safe if she kept within bounds.
Weeks passed and summer matured into autumn. The leaves of the creeper began to show crimson tips. The air acquired a sharper quality. It was term-time and Ruth had to empty the vending machine more frequently. As she counted the coins, ranging the piles in neat rows, she mentally translated each pile into a bowl of hot soup, or a fresh baguette, or a roasted vegetable sandwich. What would the girl by the wall do with a couple of stacks of 10ps? Would she buy food? Or drugs, more likely? Ruth heard a voice in her head warning against the folly of giving to street beggars: It supports their vices. Much more good can be done by giving money to charitable organisations which do excellent work among the genuine homeless.
Ruth bagged up the money and concealed it in her old shopping bag. When she got to the corner of the road where the girl sat she flicked a nervous glance ahead of her. The girl was there as usual looking pinched and cold. Ruth fingered the few coins deep in her coat pocket. But if she gave the girl a few pieces of silver, might she come to expect a donation every time Ruth passed? And it would be such a little donation – goodness knows, Ruth’s salary only just covered her own outgoings. She briskly crossed over to the other side of the road – and hated herself.
When she came out of the bank she almost tripped over a row of outstretched legs in ragged jeans. A pallid face leered at her from under spiked, painted hair and ring-pierced eyebrows; filthy hands shot towards her. “Spare some change?” a voice whined. She was glad the money was safely with the cashier.
Ruth walked on purposefully, treading in the squares, avoiding other walkers. Voices clamoured in her head: Beggars are an eyesore on the streets of our towns and cities. Anyone in our society who wants a job can find one. The government makes adequate provision for cases of genuine hardship. Begging is unnecessary.But Ruth knew that an unemployed teenager with no fixed abode would receive nothing. She knew how difficult it was to get a job if you didn’t have an address. Ruth knew the monthly cost of an address.
Back at the library the image of the girl sitting motionless and expressionless in the corner by the railings stayed with Ruth and preyed on her mind more and more as the days passed.
A silent anger possessed her. It was not the fault of allthe street beggars that they lived and begged and died on the streets. The system was at fault. Society was at fault. The individual was at fault. Ruth was at fault. Her conscience weighed as heavy on her as the burden of the coins in her bag. The money which she carried faithfully to the bank went into the account of a vast and thriving corporation whose managing director received – how much per annumin salary? The obscenity of such vast, uncountable sums accruing to one man appalled Ruth. What wealth one week’s worth of coins from the vending machine would be to the pale girl by the wall. What if Ruth should give her the coins next time she was on her mission to the bank?
Ruth felt a creeping excitement; her skin tingled and her raised pulse soughed deafeningly in her ears. She could and would do something to redress the imbalance. She would make a gesture and accept whatever consequences came from it. She would step out of bounds. She had thought about it for many days. She had decided. She became obsessed by the plan; she was mesmerised by the simplicity of it – the sheer compulsion of it.
Firm in her decision next emptying time, Ruth tipped the coins onto her desk. With measured calm she counted them into piles,10s, 20s, 50s, £1s. There were many piles. The piles went into the bags and the bags went into the shopper. Her hands were sweating and she smelt the acrid metal on her clammy palms. Once outside the library, she strode out, elated, absorbed by her mission. Her feet trod on the cracks and on the squares. She gripped the handle of her bag till her nails dug into her hand. A feeling of weightlessness floated her along; she felt herself invisible on the street. In fifty steps she would be at the corner; in twenty steps; in ten. She would see the girl sitting by the wall in the weak autumn sunlight. She would look into the girl’s clear, empty eyes; the oval face would show no reaction. She would drop the shopper with the money, all of it, at the girl’s feet. On behalf of those who had, she would give to those who had not.
Ruth rounded the corner and cast her eyes forward, through the throng of passers-by to the place at the foot of the wall where the pale, unmoving, passive girl always sat. The crimson leaves of the creeper had already begun to drop onto the paving stones. They littered the pavement and danced a little circular dance in a breath of passing wind. Round and round the brilliant leaves twirled at the foot of the old wall. On the paving stones. On the vacant paving stone. There was no girl.
The leaves blew against the wall in a trembling heap, lifted and rose up and passed through the blue and gold railings into the college garden beyond. Ruth stood motionless, her feet rooted to the centre of a large, grey paving stone. Her moment of resolve had been snatched from her. A feeling of great loss overwhelmed her.
For minutes Ruth stood. She became aware of the weight of the bag in her hand. Pedestrians jostled her and the sounds of the street clamoured in her ears.
Turning, she walked to the kerb, carefully avoiding the joins in the paving slabs, then, looking first right, then left, then right again, she crossed the road to the bank.