(Fourth themed Improv challenge with The Dreaming – Theme: Wallet)
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day. The day that made me realise what I’d become in my moment of desperation to survive, and the day that opened my eyes to the hope that still lived in humanity.
That hope came in the form of an elderly man named Graham, who held himself up with his walking stick because of his badly damaged hip.
I was a poor man, a very poor man, and in more ways than just financial.
My entire life had been a struggle to make ends meet, and I had been dismissed from more jobs than I care to explain due to my ‘lack of punctuality’.
They said I was late too often, but did they even care to ask why? No.
“Don’t take it personally, Sam. It’s just business.”
Don’t you just hate it when they use the old, dog-eared cliché as though it’s supposed to make you feel better?
No, it might be business for you, but it’s so much more personal to me.
Due to our lack of resources, my family have stayed below the poverty line, and have been moved from shelter to shelter over the years. My wife, Eleanor, stuck by my side.
I don’t know how, or why, but my beloved wife stuck by me and encouraged me to keep trying no matter how bad our circumstances became.
Last year, during what I thought was an uprising for my financial situation, I found out that Eleanor was diagnosed with leukaemia and soon after… she left me.
She returned to heaven, while she left me dying in her memory on this pitiful Earth. Why?
She died, and yet so did I. She left for heaven, but so did my soul… it went with her.
When I felt I had no reason to live, I looked to our son, Thomas – he has his mother’s eyes – and see that she left me with a piece of her.
However, my hopes continued to be trodden on when I found out that Thomas had the cancerous cells inside of him too.
He soon became ill, and taking care of him took up more time than what any job saw reasonable flexibility for. The crumbs of money that we had left were used for his treatment, but it wasn’t enough to keep it going.
We were going hungry. No one was giving me a job, I even tried selling cans on the street, but no one wants a can of juice from the hands of a hunger stricken street seller when they can purchase it from the closest vending machine.
Whatever scraps I could muster together from the local market refuse, I’d clean it off and try to salvage whatever I could of a meal for my son and myself.
I recall once going for four days without a crumb of food, all because the local council had decided to change the waste disposal system without so much as a warning to the people who lived here.
I don’t care about myself, but seeing my son in agony and being able to count his every rib drove me to the edges of my sanity.
That’s when it happened. My crime, my sin and my salvation, all wrapped up in one package. Graham.
It was a late November evening, and my fingertips were so cold that I could no longer feel the pain of my fingernails digging into their once fleshy pads.
It had been almost three days since I had eaten, and even the thought of food was beginning to make my stomach churn – my stomach had shrunk from the constant starvation.
However, Thomas needed nourishment. If I couldn’t afford his treatment, then I could at least allow my child a full stomach when he leaves this world to return to his mother.
Eleanor. She’d take better care of him there, I know she would. Who knows, maybe soon enough I’d be with them too… it all seemed too perfect.
Seated on the middle of a park bench, with his walking stick gently resting by his side, I saw an elderly man looking through his wallet – It looked pretty full.
‘The’ thought crossed my mind.
I can’t. I mustn’t. How would I face God, how would I face Eleanor, if I stoop to such lows?
The face of my malnourished child splayed across my vision – How can I not?
Noticing my stillness, the man looked up at me and, for that short moment, we saw a flash of pain cross between us.
At that time I thought it was mine, and that maybe he’d recognized the emotion, but I would later discover how wrong I was.
Like a shocked animal, I ran at him and grabbed hold of his wallet, knocking him clean off the bench and onto the floor.
I said I wouldn’t look back, but I couldn’t help it.
He lay huddled like a ball, clutching onto his chest, as he slowly looked towards me and reached out his hand.
I can’t look. Keep running. Just keep running.
A few blocks away, I hid in a small alley way and leaned against the wall in an attempt to slow down my haphazard breathing.
What have I done?
I stared down at the old, brown leather wallet and, after what felt like an hour, I pulled myself back to reality.
Slowly, I unclipped the button at the front, and it opened out to display three compartments.
One held a few twenty pound notes, probably enough to buy food for the next week or two.
The second securely clutched onto some bank cards, store cards and what seemed like small keepsakes from friends and family.
The third compartment was what grabbed at my heart and had me in tears.
The translucent cover framed an old black and white photograph of a woman, dressed in an ankle length dress and a sun hat, and her smile beamed brightly with love and deep care.
This was his Eleanor.
I realised then what he had been reaching for, it hadn’t been the money.
Graham McMillan – or so the bank cards read – had been through tragedies of his own.
How long had he been suffering?
What was his reason to still hold on to this life if his Eleanor was gone?
Could those keepsakes have been from his children too?
Through the deep grumbling of my starving stomach and the beating of my own heart in my ears, I wept for the person I had become. I wept for Graham McMillan, whom I had stolen from. I wept for my son. I wept for Eleanor, his and mine.
I didn’t know what else I could do.
I knew he would most likely have left the park by now, but a part of me had to know if there was still a chance for redemption.
On that same bench, the elderly man I had so disrespectfully knocked over and stolen from sat quietly with his head hanging low.
I slowly walked over to him, unsure of what to say, and stuck out his wallet just inches from his hands.
“Mr McMillan, please… forgive me.”
The man looked up at me once again, except this time his eyes looked swollen from grief, and then looked to the wallet.
Silently, he took it from my hand and opened it as though he were in search of an answer to a long unanswered question.
The silent sigh of relief passed over his eyes and the life that had gone seemed to have returned to his complexion once more.
He slid out the photograph, keepsake and bank card, and then, to my surprise, handed me back the wallet.
I was confused and heartbroken from his kindness all at once, and it was noticeable in the trembling of my hands that were out in front of me in a praying gesture.
“Sir, what I did was inexcusable and I apologise. I was just so desperate.”
Waving the wallet at me in one hand, he smiled and replied, “DO you need the money, son?”
I lowered my head and nodded, shame and embarrassment taking hold of my being.
“Then take this. Clearly, you need it more than I do.”
He then placed the wallet in my hands, stood up, gave me a pat on the back and slowly walked away.
After a very long time, I was seeing a face of humanity that I had always been told it looked as a child. The elderly man, who had walked away while holding on tightly to the last remaining image of his Eleanor, had gifted me in more ways than just money.
Yes, my son and I would eat tonight, and yes this would give me the means to look for more jobs.
Yet, the biggest gift that came in the form of that brown leather wallet was the gift of hope – We may struggle, but a tomorrow will come when the Sun finally shines again.
Thank you, Graham.
© Naziyah Mahmood, 2014.