Sharing another short story is long overdue. This was my second effort written almost a year ago. I wanted to push my use of dialogue and introduce a bit more action. I hope you enjoy.
A short story by Bill Riddell
Fat end over the thin from right to left and take it around the back. Fat over thin again, around, to the centre, over the top and through the middle then pull tight and straighten it out. I despise tying that half-Windsor knot in my tie, it’s like wearing an ornate noose. But we all have to play the part occasionally.
This evening I am to play the lead role with a gala dinner to be held in my honour – even though I only wanted a supporting credit. If only they knew that honour had no place amongst the reasons I performed my work.
I don’t know why I make the theatre allusions, I hate it. I’d rather watch the latest Jim Carey movie or Discovery Chanel. Unfortunately intermission is a great opportunity to shake down rich people for donations to help those not so well off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, won’t you please be standing and give a resounding round of applause to this evenings honouree, Mr James Watson.”
‘Shut up, all of you. Please.’ I muttered under my breath.
“There are very few men in the world that poses even half of the dedication and selflessness that this man has shown. Over the past few decades he has dedicated his life to the homeless and at risk people,” preached the minster from the lectern. Though he lacked his churches usual pulpit, I smugly thought that my right hand man seemed quite at home praising me rather than the almighty.
“Now I know you are all eager for your four-course dinners, however I’d like to take the time to tell those of you unfamiliar with James work just what an impact he has had on people who would otherwise go without a single meal.”
“I meet a lot of people eager to help out with money or time, mostly money. So many of you have a healthy wallet but your watch has withered from over use. You feel bad about that. So you kindly share some of your hard earned money and spend your limited time at pleasant events like this, giving more money. You do this to help dissolve the guilt you feel about the incomprehensible gulf of prosperity between you and them.”
“It takes a rare man to bridge that gap. In fact in this room of over 400, I’d argue there is only 1. Pretty lousy odds. Fortunately for those less fortunate James has been paying out consistently, with his own time, money and whatever he can take from you, for the last 25 years.”
“James, please join me before I truly say something stupid. No more of the holy sacrament for yours truly,” he said in a mockingly slurred speech.
“James…” he politely pleaded.
Reluctantly I pushed my body out of the chair, giving a nervous grin to those at my table – some of my biggest financial supporters and my wife, the greatest supporter of all.
“Ahhh, there he is folks. Come on up James.”
Though my banquet table was in the middle of the room, rather than pushing my way through the middle to the stage straight ahead, I walked through the waiters’ laneway from the kitchen, along the side wall and past the men’s room. As I passed the double doors leading back into the lobby, a single door swung open. I turned my body to look through the doorway as two hands seized the lapels of my dinner jacket and pulled me in as the door closed behind me.
“He never has been one for the limelight folks…” said the minister, his amplified voice permeating the walls. “Perhaps the band can play a tune or two until we can wrangle Mr Watson to the stage.”
While off balance my attacker swung my body into the wall and pushed me along it, throwing me into a club chair.
“Mr Watson, the hero,” he laughed. “So good to see you again.”
“How do I know you?” I asked.
“I know the truth James. I know why you dedicate your life to helping the homeless.”
“It’s only fair I suppose to give the rest of your life to help them, after killing one.”
Those words brought me back from the shock. He was standing over me, dressed as the waiters with black slacks and white shirts. That’s it, he brought me a glass of scotch. Everyone else was drinking their champagne and I had to have some single malt.
My mind snapped back – forget the scotch, how did he know.
“I was there that night. You ran down my older brother, got out to make sure he was dead; after failing to see me or any other witnesses you left your nearly empty bottle of scotch on the road next Jason’s body and drove on in the Mercedes that your daddy no doubt paid for.”
“I wasn’t sure it was you until you ordered that scotch before. Now I know.”
With that he leaned back for a moment, then lunged forward grasping the arms of the chair and pushing me backwards. My head landed with a cushioned thud against the plush carpet. I laid in the chair, paralysed with fear as I scanned around ready for a blow. Was he going to kill me? Was he going to expose me in front of everyone tonight?
“Has anyone seen Mr Watson?” called the minister.
My eyes darted around the empty sitting room. I awkwardly got back up, rolling onto my side before pushing myself back up with one hand on the floor and the other on the wall to steady myself. The room was littered with different chairs, small tables, and a grand piano. He could still be in here.
As my heart rate eased slightly I stood and made my way back to the grand banquet room, back through the double doors.
“There he is. James, you weren’t hiding were you?”
As I walked towards the podium I felt what the homeless man must have experienced that night. The spotlights highlighting my walk to the podium reminded me of the headlights of my Mercedes lighting up the road in the early hours of that fateful day – piercing through the darkness and early morning fog.
I quickly wondered who in the room was following those beams of light to my body, as if staring down a gun sight.
Looking around the room full of faces I was bewildered. Why are they all here? Tax write-off, some networking, hobnobbing. Most, like me, deep down are trying to ease the guilt.
When they aren’t guzzling wine or giggling with others at their table I could see the guilt, it was the same face I saw every morning in the mirror as I shaved.
I was a spoilt brat. Even worse, I was a spoilt brat who thought he could get away with murder. Until now I had succeeded.
Approaching the stage I shot my minister a bewildered smile.
“Hi folks, first of all let me say sorry for the delay. I always have been crowd shy and I’d much rather be back serving in the soup kitchen than up here with that spotlight shining in my eyes.”
“Enough of my excuses and complaints, I’d like to begin by thanking each one of you kind folks for being here to honour me tonight.”
My carefully written speech failed to unfold a my hands fumbled at the edges, my body swaying nervously ever so slightly from side to side. Giving in I pushed the hand written talking points back inside my jacket.
“Each and every man is capable of equal measures of generosity and evil. When I first began helping others I had no idea what I was capable of.”
Oh no, what am I saying…
“Before doing my part for the generous side of the ledger; I, like many others, had contributed far too much to the other.”
“And so, today I stand before you and ponder if the positive can outweigh the negative. If lives saved can outweigh a life taken. The greater good.”
I scanned the room, but rather than observing the no doubt shocked and dumbfounded looks of those I typically concerned myself with, instead my mind focused on spotting the man challenging the merit of my achievements.
The minister put a hand on my shoulder and pushed a glass of water into my hand, I gulped nervously, almost choking, as he then reached inside my jacket – retrieving and unfolding the notes for me on the lectern.
I completed the speech as planned – full of pleasantries, humble sentiments, hope for the future and guilt button pushing to garner more donations.
The remainder of the evening was fairly uneventful. The drinks flowed, checks were written, wallets emptied and my slip-up was soon forgotten. A few drunken idiots mentioned it between slurs and pats on the back – but they wouldn’t recall it tomorrow.
My secret was still safe for now. Except for my wife…
The drive home was quite, Lauren finally breaking the silence once inside our home.
“What happened James? You disappeared before your speech and have been on edge ever since. And what on earth was with the start of your speech, all that good and bad ledger business. I thought you were about to admit you’d been having an affair or something.”
I chuckled slightly at the suggestion of infidelity.
“You haven’t have you?”
“No! Don’t be ridicules. You should know I lack the energy to keep up with you, let alone another woman.”
“Did one of the kids you have been trying to help lately overdose?” she queried.
“No there hasn’t been one in a while.”
“Well what is it then Jim, what is wrong?” She pleaded. “And don’t tell me ‘nothing’ – I won’t buy that, I can tell something is different.”
“Your right…” I finally relented, with a sigh. “When you met me I’d been doing the charity work for a year or two after dropping out of university. As a result my parents wrote me out of their inheritance and tried to take the trust they had created for me when I was born.”
“Yes… is it your parents? Are they in trouble?”
“No, as far as I know they are rich and miserable as always. However you never really questioned why I dropped out and why my parents disowned me. Not that I would have answered.”
“Ok?” she enquired.
“I had barely turned 18, after partying with mates from Uni I drove home after far too many drinks. About two in the morning, just blocks from the flat I was living in I took a detour around the police station up a quite road next to a park. A homeless man, probably no older than I was at the time walked out into the middle of the road and before I could blink he bounced off the front of the Mercedes mum and dad had given me just a few weeks earlier.”
“Oh James, you didn’t did you.”
“Yeah, I got out of the car clutching the bottle of scotch. I checked he was dead – felt no pulse or breathing. Then I looked to make sure no one was around, left the bottle in the gutter before getting back in the car. I backed up then drove over the gutter and onto the footpath to avoid running over his body lying lengthways across both lanes of traffic, his hands pointing the way to a dilapidated rotunda and rose garden.”
“Obviously I did not look to well to make sure no one was about. That mans younger brother saw everything and has finally tracked me down. When I disappeared before my speech, it was him.”
“He grabbed me as I was walking up and pulled me into the lobby. He threw me around, threatened me and then vanished. I was expecting him to shoot me while I was giving my speech or charge onto the stage.”
“I almost let the cat of the bag in the speech but the minister promoted me back on track. He’s the only person who knows other than my parents, and my mother has already taken it to the grave.”
“The minister knew my parents and I well, I was the first baptism he performed and naturally I confessed to him a few days after the hit and run. Confessed that I was so drunk that for a split second I thought I was playing a computer game, lining up the target and mowing it down; but the skull cracking on the windshield brought me back. Even Hollywood could never replicate that sound, let alone 80’s computer game makers.”
“It was a horrible, unforgivable thing. Yet I believe I have repaid my debt to society. I’ve served over 20 years in the services of the community. I’d have served a similar term in prison if convicted only to achieve nothing; instead I have changed the lives of so many for the better, after changing the life of one for the worst.”
Before even making it to the doorway I knew he was there. Something in the frigid morning air didn’t seem right. The door was ajar ever so slightly – the deadbolt to our little office was unlocked. It always held the door closed correctly while the door lock merely kept some semblance of closure. Turning the old brass knob and swinging the heavy door I closed it behind me and made my way through the narrow hallway, dodging the boxes of donations ready to be taken out.
There he was sitting on my desk.
“I hope you don’t mind, I’ve taken a look around,” he said, standing abruptly and gesturing next to one of the huge pin-boards on walls. He plucked and prodded at the smiling photographs, postcards full of joy and cards that struggled to express the gratitude of the people who sent them.
“I couldn’t really fathom your achievement last night amongst the pompous brigade, with their fat checks, flowing champagne and pats on the back. But, I can tell now this is where you’d have rather been. “
I nodded solemnly.
His words had begun to calm my nerves, but the sight of a fuel can almost hidden behind my desk brought me back to a panic.
“I didn’t expect you to be here so early. You’re obviously very dedicated.”
He traced my line of sight to the can and gave it a few taps with his leg in acknowledgment.
“The plan was to burn this place to the ground, with you in it. I suppose I could still make it happen – but it seems my brother’s death accomplished more than he could ever have hoped. That accident sparked something in you that has burned brighter each year – lighting the way for others out of the darkness. Snuffing that out would be like backing up and running over my brother’s body again.”