‘Anita Smith’ by Barbara Jaques

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The ticket was forgotten. It had been bought as an after-thought in a hopeful moment, and shoved into the slim pocket of a purse, hurried fingers pushing so the middle folded just off centre. One corner was dog-eared; part of the fold concertinaed, as it squashed against a fuzz-encrusted penny.

The same disregard allowed both purse and ticket to travel without an owner. On an ancient city bus, a velour seat of such a similar shade of navy to the blue purse, made any backward glance unseeing. The owner of the purse, one Anita Smith, was dead, having passed away that morning shortly after getting off the bus. Witnesses described her as distressed, rummaging in her bag instead of looking where she was walking. It was only a lamppost, but the impact was lethal.

After staggering the length of the moving bus, Peter took a seat without noticing the lost item, but immediately felt it sticking into his wide bottom. He was on his way to work, and though travelling later than usual, due to a doctor’s appointment, he still had that Monday-morning feeling wedged in his chest.

Reaching beneath himself, trying to suppress the memory of the doctor commenting on his weight, Peter pulled out the purse. He sighed when he saw it; it was sad to think of the panic that would grip the owner once the loss was realised. Lucky for them, he thought, that he had found it and not someone dishonest. The purse was made of navy tweed, shot through with fine lines of red, in a simple-looking tartan. A thing of two halves, the purse fastened together with a popper.

Peter un-popped it.

Inside were two ten-pound notes, and some change zipped into a section meant for exactly that. There were several loyalty cards, a few tattered business cards gone soft, a debit card and no credit card. There was no driving license, or any obvious means to identify the owner beyond a name. Peter delved into the only section so far unexplored.

For the first time in more than a month, daylight shone on the ticket.

He tugged it out, and observed the date. Anita Smith clearly did not have any great need to win, for would she not have checked the numbers the moment they were drawn? As Peter studied the ticket, so the bus drew to a halt. An older woman climbed on and showed her pass. Her bottom was as big as Peter’s, yet after waddling down the aisle, she chose to squeeze in next to him. Ever the gentlemen, he shuffled up as best he could, and absently closed the purse before placing it in his anorak pocket, trying not to nudge his new neighbour. He would hand it in at lunchtime.

As the bus wound its usual route, so Peter’s thoughts drifted. All too soon the bus stopped and the dreaming ended. Luckily, someone else had rung the bell. He looked to the old lady and smiled the getting-off-here smile, eyebrows slightly raised, expression encouraging her to move. She stood up, and Peter hauled himself out, thanking her with a nod.

*

As the fat man headed away, Sidika settled herself comfortably again, and noticed that on the seat where he had been sitting was a crumpled lottery ticket. She glanced to the door in hope of catching him, even though it was already closed and the bus moving off.

Picking up the ticket she smoothed it flat, then held it between forefinger and thumb, staring. If this was his – an unchecked ticket, and not just some litter he’d been smothering – what if these were winning numbers? What if that poor man had just walked away from a fortune? She raised reading glasses hanging from a long chain about her neck, and looked at the date. Top prize was not likely, she decided. It was, at best, a small win waiting to be cashed.

Allowing the glasses to fall back onto her ample bosom, Sidika frowned. Maybe, however small the amount, it was not small to him? He was a dishevelled-but-clean sort, like he still lived with his mother. Ten pounds might take her to the bingo. Sidika’s face lightened a little and she shrugged, there really was no point worrying about it now.

She decided that if it were a small win, she would put the prize money in the charity box kept by her local shop. It belonged to a hospice, and Sidika liked the idea of this chance-find supporting those for whom chance had dealt a difficult hand. A question then rose up; what if there wasn’t anything to claim, not even a pound? Sidika would have nothing to give. And what if it was the winning ticket, after all, what then? How would she donate it, or even make the claim? Might she share it? Everyone needed money, including her.

Sidika’s stop came. She pressed the bell. When she was certain the bus was stationary, she called out for the driver to wait, and heaved herself from the seat, moving unsteadily along the aisle and out onto the pavement. The lightness of the air lifted her thoughts, and she paused for a moment. Life was already so good.

There, before her, was a man sitting crossed legged on an old sleeping bag. Apart from the faded blue of the bag, his entire person seemed all of one shade, a dusty brown matching the dog curled at his knee. Before him was a hat, and next to it a hand-written sign. Sidika had little time for homeless people, but the words melted her heart.

 

GIVE IF YOU CAN, OTHERWISE JUST TAKE ONE

 

Various animals, beautifully crafted from finely slivered bamboo, were arranged on a piece of cardboard. Sidika reached slowly down and dropped the lottery ticket into the hat, telling him that she had no idea what it was worth. Maybe something. Maybe nothing. He nodded, silently.

*

Clive eyed the ticket, not sure what to think about the gesture. It wasn’t like when people bought him food, unsubtly trying to steer him from buying drugs or alcohol; as if being homeless meant he no longer deserved the privilege of choice. Maybe he didn’t want a sandwich. Maybe he wanted water. Maybe he wanted a beer.

He decided the ticket was worth thinking about. If it had value, then the first question must be how to realise that value. Would he have to prove someone had given it to him? Because he would never be able to say where it was bought, or offer whatever evidence was required. He would only be able to tell the truth and say it came from a stranger. Still, for once, the truth might be enough, he supposed.

Looking at Sykes, as he snoozed carefree in the sunny patch they had found, Clive wished that he, too, was a dog. The spring sun was growing warmer day by day, and with it the sense of security. Winter had been quite hard, and more than once Clive had feared they might not wake up in the morning. But now, with those dark bitter months as far away as could be, he felt better. He could still not see a way out of the life he now lived, but there was some pleasure to be found in the making of his animals, and in sitting in the sun with Sykes.

Drowsy, Clive allowed his head to droop. Soon, he was sleeping deeply in the safety of daylight.

When he woke up, Sykes was still dead to the world, but all his animals and his hat had gone.

*

Charlie and Fred panted, and Fred laughed wildly. They had sneaked up on the smelly tramp and swiped his things and run. Serves him right, Fred declared, for sleeping on the job.

They’d found a good place to sit in the park, tucked out of sight under a huge shrub, and there they examined the haul. The woven animals and hat were tossed aside, stolen money shared and pocketed. Seven pounds fifty-one pence didn’t divide exactly in two, so Fred took the extra coins.

The lottery ticket presented a problem. How could they check it when they were not sixteen, or anywhere near looking so old? Charlie inspected the ticket and said his elder sister might do it; she was fifteen. But she might ask where it came from.

Fred said to tell her; Charlie shook his head.

Fred said he couldn’t ask his own sister, because she was only fourteen and looked like a twelve year old, so they might as well try and do it themselves.

By now, Charlie was very aware that he had done something bad, because the thought of admission brought heat to his face. Though it could easily have been the thought of Fred’s sister, of course. Charlie was also aware that Fred was the wild one, the carefree leader, while he was nothing more than a follower. Charlie hadn’t wanted to steal from the man, and only laughed because Fred had laughed, and Fred’s laugh was hilarious. Often, he didn’t want to do the things Fred suggested, like missing school today, but could never find a way to say no.

Fred snatched the ticket from Charlie and said his cousin would do it. He was nineteen and would think Fred was great for taking it the way he had.

Charlie nodded.

Just then, a voice cried out angrily. The boys’ gaze shot through a gap in the undergrowth, across to the park entrance. Next to the enormous wrought iron gates stood a woman they didn’t know. She was young and athletic, and beside her was a man that could only be her boyfriend. She shouted, claiming to have witnessed the theft. The pair started running towards the boys, still yelling, so Charlie and Fred scrambled to their feet and sped off.

*

Peter was on his way to the police station when he saw something fluttering across the grass. It seemed to have been kicked up on the current of air created by two people charging past him. His eyes were primed to notice it, because he had been thinking of the ticket in the purse. When he appreciated what it was, he picked it up, and chuckled at the coincidence of both a second ticket and the identical date. Instinctively, he un-popped the purse and searched for the match, only then realising that the ticket was not there. What he had rescued from the ground was now held up with a nervous sort of reverence, for he suddenly felt sure he recognised the numbers. This was the same ticket. It looked very familiar with its distinctive creases and folds. Peter’s eyes darted about, as if searching for whoever it was playing this trick on him. Then with temptation guiding his hand he stuffed the ticket into his trouser pocket, closed up the purse, and went on his way.

It was with great disappointment that Peter arrived at the police station only to find it had closed so long ago not even an information notice remained. Exhausted from his walk, he leaned his back against the wall of the empty building. He tried not to think of his doctor’s advice regarding exercise. This walk had been hard; anything more didn’t bear thinking about. He undid his anorak and flapped it, feeling the relief of fresh air easing about his body, cooling his hot, wet armpits. He checked his watch. If he went straight back to work he might have time for some lunch. Today, he would have something light, because he still wasn’t feeling too well. The doctor had shown little interest in this fact, more concerned with his weight, when all Peter had wanted was for the doctor to make him feel better. He hadn’t.

On the return walk, Peter reflected upon the ticket in his pocket, and taking it out put it back in the purse. He wasn’t a thief.

A clammy sweat clung to him, and he realised with the first tremulous wave of alarm that he was not feeling well at all. Within sight of his bus stop, he decided to go home. Mother would know what to do, and how to handle the dismissive doctor. She could call work.

Peter had been waiting only one minute before the bus arrived, and by the time he had struggled to a seat, he was very worried. His jaw felt stiff, and breathing tight. He wanted to be at home. Still, he was grateful to be sitting, since the bus, for whatever reason, was full.

The journey seemed to take forever, as it stopped and emptied and refilled repeatedly. Peter had no idea it could be so busy outside of rush hour, and was again grateful not to be standing. Finally his stop came into view. Someone was flagging down the bus, so there was no need to press the bell.

It slowed; airbrakes hissed. Peter dragged himself to his feet, frightened now; certain something was very wrong. Strangers’ eyes were upon him, though no one spoke. As he stood, so the purse slipped unseen from his pocket, and settled once more on the seat, camouflaged amongst navy blue velour.

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