Stewart Devitt was born in Belfast, worked and played there and in Dublin, donning the jerseys of Instonians and Bective Rangers rugby clubs. An experienced training professional, specialising in communication and personal development, he lived in Auckland for 15 years and is now back in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he can devote more time to writing, a lifelong hobby, and pleasure.
By Stewart Devitt
Rodney opened the door of his 1920 California styled bungalow, breathed in the early morning air, and gently eased himself onto the veranda. Peering up at the darkening clouds, he sniffed in the cold autumn air before taking a few steps down the path. Satellite dishes, clustered together in the small overgrown garden, cast a shadow on the path of what looked like a high-tech environment. In reality, none of them functioned, and more to the point, he hadn’t the cash flow to subscribe any of the services offered through the world wide web. His only link to what was happening in the world outside was his trusty wind-up radio, a simple way of sticking up two fingers to the modern age.
Standing at the broken gate, leaning awkwardly off its hinges, Rodney glanced left, then right, before circling the edge of the park to arrive at the main intersection, where he pressed frustratingly at the yellow button supposedly controlling the traffic signals. The system never seemed pedestrian friendly, programmed instead to ensure an unnecessarily long wait time before the little green man became animated and the accompanying bleeps indicated it was safe to cross. Reaching the local shopping precinct, anchored at one end by a hardware store and at the other by a computer sales and repair shop, Rodney stopped to take a breath. A French café, burger bar, barber shop and superette provided additional amenities for the local community, with a narrow entry dividing the latter two.
The entry, just wide enough for cars to drive down, led to ten parking spaces at the rear of the shops and also gave access to a rather precarious shortcut over the railway line to the council playing fields. A group of youths habitually loitered around this area, and a couple of them were already settling in, causing minor obstruction, and soliciting blasts from car horns of the few motorists wanting to access the parking space. Rodney often wondered how they managed to find the money to buy their trendy clothes and flash cell phones. To a stranger, they must have looked intimidating although he had never experienced any trouble, and they always nodded, in a robot-like fashion, as he acknowledged their presence with a wave of his hand.
A simple wave was one of his characteristics, a gesture that generally encouraged smiles and acceptance. Originating at hip level, his right-hand palm faced out and performed a gentle side by side movement to signal friendship. Only when his eyes were focused on his prey did he fail to deliver this signal of recognition. To Rodney, gestures spoke louder than words, avoiding the need to talk, although he always accepted the local grammar school principal’s yearly invitation to talk to the school assembly. Listening to Rodney was deemed helpful in widening the pupils’ perspective and developing their appreciation and understanding of how his lifestyle was non-threatening to them and the general public.
Except for Kalif, who was expertly snipping away at a customer’s hair, the other shops were yet to open. The barber shop was Rodney’s starting point for his prospecting. At least three times a day, he went around the area, varying his route, searching for tobacco treasures that would sustain a long established nicotine addiction without any cash outlay. Now, ready to begin his first hunt of the day, somewhat earlier than usual, he pulled up his baggy shorts and tightened the string around his waist. With a small plastic cup firmly grasped in his left hand, Rodney began to shuffle along the footpath near the kerb. This morning there was immediate success, and outside the superette, across the entry from Kalifs, he stooped down and, in one flowing movement, picked up a half-smoked Marlboro, dropped it into the cup and moved on.
Now the journey had begun, following the pathway up to the junction, moving at a steady if not spectacularly fast shuffle, before turning left into one of the minor roads. Eyes roaming from hedge to path, from kerb to the road, Rodney’s peripheral vision was on high alert to spot any discarded tobacco nuggets. A successful trip at this time of day would provide resources until lunchtime when he would repeat the exercise along one of his secondary routes. Then towards evening, the search would begin again. Occasionally a few cents, or even a dollar, would be pocketed, although this was the exception rather than the rule. A far cry from living under the bridges in London where, from his point of view, the streets had indeed been lined with gold. This had been especially so at weekends, near pubs and railway stations. Still, there had never been any regrets about taking the opportunity, over thirty years ago, to follow Lily to New Zealand. Saddened when the relationship broke up after a year when Lily could no longer accept that he had no intention of changing his ways and looking for a proper job, Rodney settled into a hermit like lifestyle.
Fifteen minutes later, Rodney was back near the starting point. Straightening up from rescuing another discarded cigarette, he had to nimbly side step to avoid bumping into an elegantly dressed Indian lady walking briskly out of the superette. Ignoring the derogatory comments from the youths nearby, she opened the door of a silver Mercedes and slid effortlessly into the cream leather passenger seat, not noticing a small slip of paper float from the car down into the gutter. As the car drove off, Rodney moved at an impressive speed to put his foot on the paper before it got blown away. Picking up what was obviously a lottery ticket, he was oblivious to the smiling face on the advertising boards promoting that night’s midweek rollover draw with a prize of $30 million.
As Dawn left her home on Thursday morning, she thanked God that her elder sister, Clara, did most of the caring for their housebound mother. It would have been an impossible task to cope with having to manage her along with all the other clients. Everyone knew it was difficult and much more complex with family. Having spent twenty minutes on the phone with a highly excited mother because four of their numbers had come up in the previous night’s lottery draw, her patience had been severely tested. To end the call, Dawn had to promise, for the umpteenth time, that she would collect their winnings and bring whatever cash there was round to the house later that evening. Her mother’s main enjoyment and talking point, apart from bingo, was playing the lottery, especially if they had a winning ticket, which rarely happened; hence today’s excitement. The same numbers were entered into the draw every Wednesday and Saturday, creating a situation where it became impossible to change them or stop playing. From their point of view, Lady Luck was always just around the corner.
It was turning 9.00am when Dawn arrived at the bungalow and, on receiving no response to her knock, turned the door handle and walked into a fog like mist and an atmosphere of stale smoke. Rodney was stretched out on a battered old sofa bed, snoring erratically, covered with a woollen blanket that was in dire need of washing. As a social worker, Dawn was pleased to have him on her list; he was a happy person, self-contained, never complaining and relatively healthy for someone in his position. Despite the dilapidated condition of the bungalow and the fact that she had never actually seen him eat anything, there were never any issues about his welfare. Such was his innate ability to look after himself and survive on the meagre benefit he received that Dawn only called in to see him every four weeks. Her summary record of client calls that she submitted to her manager told a slightly different story and listed a weekly visit of at least thirty minutes. She constantly resisted all attempts by Margaret, her line manager, to cut back on these weekly visits by stressing Rodney’s reliance on her for continuing personal support. Dawn had a few other clients she could manage this way and saw no harm in a bit of pragmatism. After all, the schedules she and her colleagues at work were given were well-nigh impossible to stick to. She had convinced herself she was a more effective carer if she didn’t have to rush around like a bull in a china shop, continually clock watching. When Margaret suggested she accompany her and reassess the situation Dawn steadfastly refused and threatened to file a report against her manager, claiming bullying and harassment.
Moving into the kitchen, taking care as to where she put her feet, Dawn filled the kettle, switched it on, and took a packet of twenty tea bags and a carton of milk out of her bag. This little monthly contribution to Rodney’s well-being was a thank you gift for not being a burden to her. As her eyes surveyed the kitchen, taking in the unwashed dishes and looking for any that could reasonably be described as useable, she noticed the lottery ticket on the front of the fridge. It was held in place by an ugly looking leprechaun posing as a magnet. Adjusting her glasses with her right forefinger, she traced the numbers 8, 11, 19, 24, 30, 50 (2) and took a slight intake of breath. The numbers she and her mother used were indelibly imprinted in her mind, and there was an instant realisation that she was looking at five of these numbers, plus the bonus ball number, on the piece of paper in front of her.
It did not take a genius to work out that the numbers on this ticket were a better winning combination than their own. In seconds the ticket pinned behind the leprechaun was exchanged for the one in her purse. When the kettle boiled, she put a teabag in what could best be described as a less dirty cup and poured in the hot water. Adding a drop of milk and two heaped teaspoons of sugar, she stirred it briskly with a coloured pencil lying on the kitchen surface. It took more than a gentle nudge to arouse Rodney, who very slowly opened one eye, then the other, before frantically rubbing them both to speed up the process of wakening up. This then triggered a fit of coughing and spluttering, with saliva dribbling down his chin before eventually being wiped away with a corner of the blanket. Smiling up at Dawn through nicotine-stained teeth, he scratched himself all over without embarrassment. Then reaching out, he took the cup from her hand and swilled a mouthful of the tea around his gums before swallowing it.
Dawn asked the usual questions, got the standard answers, and walked quickly through all the rooms, more out of habit than with any real intent. Satisfied there were no apparent problems or issues to be dealt with, she shouted her goodbyes and headed towards the car. Having completed the call sheet, she googled the lottery results to see how much her newly acquired ticket was worth. $40,000 was much better than the $120 the original ticket would have delivered, less $60 due to her mother. Taking out a little notebook, she started to compile a list of items to buy and places to visit.
Back in the bungalow, Rodney stood in the bathroom, looked at himself in the mirror, stroked his chin, coughed up some more phlegm, spat it out in the basin, and decided nothing could be gained by washing and shaving at this point in time. Putting on a new high visibility vest the park warden had given him, he headed out to begin his morning hunt, searching for nicotine treasures. A shorter circuit proved fruitful, and walking past the superette on the way back home, he remembered the lottery ticket and made a mental note to check it out later when he would be tobacco hunting again.
Dawn could barely control her excitement as she handed over the ticket for the attendant to check at the petrol station just opposite her next call. There was even the temptation not to go ahead with the visit, such were her dreams and expectations of sudden wealth. Everything, however, turned to darkness when the attendant said, “Sorry, not this time,” and handed the ticket back.
“But the numbers,” said Dawn, “five of the numbers are last night’s numbers”.
“Don’t know about that lady,” growled the attendant, “but this ticket is a month old.”
Dawn grabbed back the flimsy white paper and looked at the date, which was indeed last months. Turning sharply and barging her way belligerently through a group of young mothers, taking a short cut to the local library’s rhythm and rhyme session, tears streamed down her face. She returned to the car and, unable to stop blubbering, collapsed into the driving seat and buried her head into the steering wheel.
It was Friday of the following week when Rodney finally got round to taking the ticket off the fridge and, before starting his late afternoon trek, popped into the superette. Seeing the Indian lady from the Mercedes at the counter, he sidled down one of the aisles waiting for her to go. He could not fail to hear her ask for a Lucky Dip and her final words, as she left the shop, were, “must bring all my slips in for you to put through the machine, Amrinder. I keep forgetting about them, and they just gather dust in the glove compartment.” As she made her way back to her car, Rodney moved up to the counter and handed over the ticket to enable the numbers to be checked.
“Lucky man”, said Amrinder, as he handed over six crisp $20 notes, wondering, although not querying, how Rodney had managed to have possession of a ticket he was sure he hadn’t purchased.
Rodney skipped through the door, waving the cash in his right hand with a huge grin spread across his face. Then, only moments later, the afternoon stillness was disturbed by the sound of a sharp, shrill scream. By the time Amrinder got out from behind the counter and into the street, Rodney was a lifeless figure. Covered in streams of his own blood, he was curled around the traffic light pole, and beside his body lay a small trail of cigarette ends and a tramped on broken plastic cup. The precinct had suddenly become deserted, no one else was in sight as the passing cars and buses drove past just as they did every day.
It was a week later when Dawn answered the knock at the door and knew immediately who her visitors were. Standing at the entrance the tall, middle-aged, fair-haired gentleman dressed in a dark blue suit and the younger lady in a navy uniform epitomized the public perception of police officers. Introducing themselves as Detective Campbell and Sergeant Glaves, they flashed their identity cards, and invited themselves into the house.
Dawn was visibly shocked when she learnt what had happened to Rodney and it took a few minutes for her to take in the news before querying why they wanted to talk with her. Starring straight at her, Sergeant Glaves gave a brief outline of the information they currently had leading up to Rodney’s death.
“We just need to clarify a few things before we can consider the case closed and finally sign it off.”
“How can I help with this? queried Dawn.
“Well,” began Detective Campbell, “your manager tells us you had a very close relationship with the deceased and you may have been the only person to talk with him that day, and according to your report he was in a buoyant and positive mood. Was that the case?”.
Dawn nodded and confirmed this was so.
“The only confusing part of this is that Rodney was recorded as being murdered at 4.20 pm on the Friday precisely ten minutes before you say you apparently spoke with him.”
She opened her mouth although initially no words were forthcoming, and a sudden chill ran through her body. Both the officers sat motionless, eyes firmly focused on her in an intimidating way, heads slightly tilted.
“Take your time,” said the sergeant, once more breaking the uneasy silence; “and just tell us what you know.”
Once Dawn started, she could not stop talking. Details about all the false entries and how she had abused her position of trust flowed from her mouth. She could not stop herself and admitted falsifying the reports about Rodney and those relating to several other clients. No mention was made of the lottery ticket, as Dawn was fully aware that it would give rise to more embarrassment and only further damage her reputation. Finally, she told them that she had taken time off work and gone with friends to the casino downtown on that Friday afternoon. This could be verified by her member’s swipe card information and the management on duty at that time. It was only after the officers left that she realised the implications of what she had said.
Arriving a little late at the crematorium, Dawn joined three other mourners, Amrinder from the superette, Kalif, the barber, and the police detective who had interviewed her. Sitting alone near the back of the chapel, she was surprised at the detailed information the funeral officiant read out about Rodney’s life. Having lost both parents in a car crash when he was in his mid-teens, Rodney’s only relative, his father’s brother, was left to care for him. The uncle did so reluctantly until Rodney reached the age of twenty, when all contact was severed. After setting up a Trust that would provide a small yearly annuity for life, his uncle told him to go and find his own way in the world. The officiant had also tracked down Lily and learnt that Rodney had regularly sent her some cash to help with rent and basic living expenses.
As Dawn listened to Rodney’s life history, she could no longer control the tears that had been welding up in her eyes. Only she knew they were not tears of sadness; instead, tears of anxiety as she thought about the possible repercussions of her disciplinary meeting scheduled for the following morning.