July 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
As some of you know, sometimes I write stories. They just sit around on my computer or in notepads, and seldom see the light of day. That seems a bit pathetic, so, over the next few weeks, I’m going to put a few on this rather neglected blog. Friends, please don’t feel you have to read but if you do, enjoy.
This one is called The Story of Matthew Pity.
Names are a tricky business. This much, Matthew Pity knows.
As a child, his name had been irresistible to the other boys, like a itch they couldn’t leave alone.
“Runaway, runaway, here comes Nitty Pity. His hair is alive.”
“Matthew Nitty, he smells all shitty.”
It hadn’t helped that he had been a tubby child, that he had been a Fat Matt.
“Matt Pity, Fat Shitty.”
“Sticks and stones, Matthew,” his mother would say. “They are just trying to be clever, those other boys. Don’t stoop to their level. They will get bored.”
Of course, his classmates did tire of “Shitty Pity” but by then it was too late. And what comes first, being an oddball or the others turning you into one? No one could say for sure if Matthew Pity had been strange before they got to work on his name. Maybe so, but they cast their own dye, for sure. School time misery and a grey adolescence for Fat Matt leading to what? A pitiful job and the life of a bedsit bore. Twenty seven and only a suitcase full of clothes and a hefty old laptop to call his own.
A shitty state of affairs for Mr Matthew Pity.
Yet, on this chilly morning, he is walking with a jive to his step. His feet are not mired in the clay of workaday cares. Today, he is like a secret dancer, on the verge of a pavement pirouette. On his pudgy, pale face, there is a fraction of a smile.
Matthew Pity turns left at the lights and walks towards his office building. At the door, he pauses. He must rein himself in, reduce his stride to his usual shuffle.
Pushing open the glass door, he is greeted by Sam Lamb, the nighttime security guard. And that’s his real name. Sam Lamb. Beyond belief, but true. Of course, Matthew Pity has some sympathy for Sam Lamb’s naming catastrophe, but he never shows it. That’s not how Shitty Pity behaves.
“Alright,” mutters Sam Lamb not looking up from his newspaper. He is only on reception until eight thirty, when Janice and the girls take over. No one wants Sam Lamb to be the daytime face of this organisation.
Matthew grunts, not an actual greeting, but the same sound he’s been making every morning for eight years, and heads for the lift.
Sam glances up. “Is it right, what I hear, that you’re leaving today?”
Matthew Pity turns back. “Yep. Last day.” He touches a pimple on his forehead, pressing down slightly to feel if it is still tender. It is.
“How long you been here then?” asks Sam Lamb, who himself has sat on the door for a quarter of a century. He needs a shave, the stubble on his layered chin a dreary grey, and there is a bit of something in the very corner of his mouth, a breakfast crumb, perhaps.
“Eight years,” says Matthew.
Sam nods. “Where you going then, boy?”
Although he has been practising this line, Matthew still hesitates. “To a warehouse,” he says. “I’m going to help manage a warehouse.”
There is a second of silence, then Matthew says, “Well, they’ll be waiting for me in the post room. I’d better go, last day or not.”
Sam Lamb laughs, a weary worker’s laugh. “Right. No rest for the wicked, eh?”
Descending to the basement, Matthew thinks how much he dislikes this building, with its scruffy ceiling tiles and stained carpets. The charity for which he works, the Marine Preservation Trust, refuses to value working conditions. The Director argues that members of the public do not donate money to be spent on fancy paintwork and smart desks. Which is true. They give money for fish, and for things which are not as intelligent as fish, like seaweed and rocks, but it’s the fish that matter. Not, for example, this lift, which grumbles and shakes as it descends, and smells of stale soup and old lunches. The back wall had once been a mirror, but now it is so filthy and cracked that Matthew has to bend down to find the spot where he can see his own reflection. He smooths down his greasy hair and thinks that, once he has left this place, he will get a decent cut.
But on his last day, there is no reason for Matthew Pity to be cross. Just eight more hours; one lunch and a few mugs of tea and it will be finished.
The lift door rumbles open and Matthew steps out into the mailroom. As usual, he hangs his jacket on one of the pegs by the door and walks to his desk. It’s old fashioned this room. Mailrooms, once essential to any office, are almost a thing of the past. No one sends letters these days, except of course, they do here because this is a charity, and some people still insist on making their donations by cheque. There are envelopes to open and processing to be done because old ladies who care about nature still don’t trust the internet to handle their payments. They think a cheque is safer. As it turns out, they are wrong but we all have our prejudices.
Even here though, the post-room is not what it once was. When Matthew started there were five of them. Now there are three, and after today, only two. It’s a sign of the times. The only area of growth for the post-room has been in accepting personal parcels, clothes and books and who knows what, which staff have delivered to the office. Matthew suspects that none of the stuff is helping the fish but hey, it’s kept him busy.
Clara and Billy are already there, sipping tea in silence, staring at the two red pouches of mail which sit before them.
These bags are their day. It doesn’t matter what they contain because opening an envelope is pretty much the same whether it holds a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds or a crinkled and faded fiver from the bottom of some old fella’s wallet. When none of it is for you, it’s all the same.
Billy and Clara cannot begin until the three of them are present. Three people are trustworthy, or so said the risk assessment man who audited procedures a few years ago. Everybody to watch everybody else. Count them in and count them out. Although after today, they will have to swallow the risk of just Clara and Billy.
“Morning Matt,” says Clara. “Kettle’s just boiled.”
Matthew walks over to the drinks’ shelf with its kettle, box of tea bags and half a packet of sugar. A thin layer of dust covers an ancient jar of Nescafe and two sachés of hot chocolate. The plastic bottle of semi-skimmed milk sits open beside the kettle. He wonders about making coffee on this, his last morning. It is what he fancies, a change from the usual, but this is no time to be different so he pours hot water over a tea bag and, adding some milk and a teaspoon of sugar, turns and heads over to his chair.
“We’ll have cakes later,” says Clara. “With it being your last day. I’ll nip out in a bit.”
“Ta,” says Matthew, spooning his tea bag into the bin beside his chair.
Clara, the age of his mother but still dying her hair and painting her nails, has children and grandchildren, a husband and a bingo club. She goes on holiday and cooks Christmas dinner for twelve. Despite her extra rolls of fat and her vacant conversation, she is a person of substance; her life has foundations so that although she is eight hours a day in this dungeon of a mailroom, it barely matters to her. When she retires in two years, she will shake off this place as easily as one brushes toast crumbs from the front of a dark sweater.
Billy is different. His manner suggests that he is ex-military; he isn’t, which is why he loves the mail room. It is a tiny universe which he believes he controls. In reality, Clara is the mailroom manager but the only indication of her superiority is a couple of extra quid in her wage packet. It is Billy’s version of order which prevails. Letters are logged his way, they are distributed along a route which he has calculated to be the most efficient. While Clara and Matthew might sometimes raise an eyebrow at each other and refer to him as “Major Billy”, they do not challenge any of his patterns. None of it matters enough.
“Let’s get cracking then,” Major Billy says, his hand sweeping some dandruff off the shoulder of his black Marine Preservation Trust t-shirt. He tips out the first of the day’s pouches. Envelopes of all sizes tumble from the bag, forming a small hill in the centre of the desk. A third are the charity’s own reply-paid envelopes and Billy weeds these out, sliding the pile across to Matthew. It is his job to open them, to take out the cheque and the donation form and to log each by hand in the heavy brown cash book. Rows of these books sit on the shelf above them. At the end of each year, they are cleared away to be stored for five years, the regulatory period. Once Matthew has made note of the donation amount and the name of the donor, he separates the cheque from the donation form and makes two piles. The cheques will go up to cashier, the donation forms to fundraising to be recorded and thanked.
So this is his job. Shitty Pity is the gateway to the charity. The donation does not exist until he says so, until he writes it down in his brown cash book. And this, he has come to realise, is real power. Those university types in the fundraising department and the press office, they might believe that it is upon them that the damn fish depend, but they are wrong. For all their degrees and away-days and urgent, “This has to be with them by tomorrow, Matthew” demands, they are just plain wrong.
Or they were, until someone decided that the Marine Preservation Trust needed to modernise its procedures.
“There you go,” says Billy. “A big lot today. Probably a response to that bit on the telly a week or so ago. That Sally from the Press Department, she was on. Remember. With the curly blond hair.”
Matthew says some thing like, “Oh yeah,” although he doesn’t remember and anyway he doesn’t want to talk. He is concentrating hard for this is how Matthew Pity works. Slow and a bit stupid, that’s what he’s always given them, and he will not change now. “A bit dim,” he’s heard them say. “He’s a good worker but out to lunch, if you know what I mean.” That’s fine. That’s how Fat Matt must be.
Matthew was twenty two before he realised that he wasn’t fated to live the life of Shitty Pity. It took him a year of opening envelopes and handling other people’s wealth before he saw how it could be done. And when he did, he laughed out loud because it was so simple and because he had no love for fish.
The Marine Preservation Trust, an important national charity, likes to shorten its name to the MPT. Everyone upstairs is far too busy to keep writing the whole name. What a waste of time that would be. So, MPT has become the acronym and, as a consequence, that’s what appears on most of the cheques. Not always, of course. Careful donors will write out the whole name, but not many people are so sensible. And how easily MPT can become M. PITY. Just slot in a couple of letters and some punctuation and a cheque to help save some rainbow fish in the Maldives becomes a donation to change the life of Fat Matt Pity.
The first time he did it, Mathew’s heart was beating so loudly he felt sure that Clara and Billy must hear the thump, thump as he slid the cheque and the donation form under the table and into the large envelope he had previously taped to the underside of the desk. He had practiced at home so the movement was quick but discreet. In any case, Matthew sat the end of the room, facing the other two, so he could move when their heads were down. That first day, he felt the weight of the stolen cheque under the table, heavy and dangerous. The others must know, he thought. But he was wrong. Clara and Billy bumbled through their morning until lunch time, when Matthew was able to retrieve the cheque and pop it into another self addressed envelope. This he took out with him in his bag, slipping it in the post box before going to buy his chicken and lettuce sandwich. By sending the cheques to a post office box number, Matthew had built himself a safety net. Then, once a week, he visited his box. In his bedsit, he carefully changed each cheque and printed out a “thank you” letter on the charity’s headed paper. As long as the cheque was cashed and a letter of thanks received, the donor was content and the charity none the wiser.
So Matthew Pity began amassing money. He was careful, taking only medium sized amounts, and not too many. Large donations would be missed, their whereabouts questioned. And small donations were tricky too. A child who had raised five pounds from a sponsored swim was likely to be waiting for his Freddy Fish tooth brush, but a working woman hastily writing out a cheque for fifty quid after a fun holiday scuba diving, she was never likely to follow up again. It was a gamble, of course, but one which Matthew Pity found he quite enjoyed. After all, the only thing at stake was the sad life of shitty Fat Matt Pity.
For three years, Matthew has been stealing from the Marine Preservation Trust. A few pounds every day, a good weekly total. And nobody noticed. Well, once a donor had asked for a print out of all their donations, and when some were missing, there was a flurry of concern. But it had passed. Instead of doing a full investigation, the MPT had assumed human error and moved on. For a while, Matthew had stopped taking anything, but time passed and a good thing is a good thing.
He opened several accounts to hold the cash, not wanting to have a central record of his deposits or for a single large total to accumulate. It would not do at all for Fat Matt, mail room boy, to have a hundred and fifty thousand pounds sitting on deposit.
Perhaps he would never have stopped but the charity had decided that, finally, it was time to computerise the mailroom. All incoming donations were to be logged directly onto the computer. In any case, the clock was ticking on cheques. In a year, all donations would likely be by direct debit, or credit card; they were already taking cashless payments at events and street collections.
It was over.
“Will you miss coming here, love,” Clara is asking.
“I guess,” says Matthew, shrugging.
Clara laughs. “Like a hole in the head, right.”
He smirks and she laughs some more. “Yeah, I know. Still, we’ll miss you, won’t we Billy. It won’t be the same, the old gang breaking up.”
Matthew doesn’t know who he dislikes more, Clara for pretending that they’ll miss him, or Billy for not bothering. What would they think, if they knew? To them, he will always be Fat Matt, a bit slow; a loser.
He finishes working on his pile of envelopes. Today, he has left well enough alone. No point in tempting fate. Everything today is for the stinking fish.
From time to time, and more so lately, it has occurred to Matthew that what he is doing is wrong. Over the years, the chatter about the environment and species extinction has grown to such a roar that even Matthew, who has never thought about the world as a interconnected miracle but rather has a hostile, lonely place, where putting one foot in front of the other is the best one can hope for, even he has questioned if stealing from the fish isn’t a much worse crime that he had originally envisaged. It has been a passing thought though and anyway, he is stopping. From now on, the fish will get the lot – and good luck to them.
“Shall I go for cakes?” Clara asks. Matthew knows that she has been thinking about the cakes all this time, something sweet to get her through the morning. She will have been anticipating the excursion too, a chance to run into someone, to gossip.
He smirks to himself as he says, “No, it’s OK Clara. I’ll go. My treat.”
Her face shows her disappointment. “Are you sure, dear?” she says. “I really don’t mind.”
But Matthew has his coat on already. “Something with cream,” he is saying. “Very nice,” Clara says, going back to her letters. “I’ll put the kettle on in a minute.”
Matthew takes the lift back up to the ground floor. He is thinking about his new name. He has settled on Jake Standish. It’s a name from another era, a better time. And names, as Matthew knows, are important.
Sam Lamb has left for the day. Touching his sport again, Matt nods to Janice and the reception girls before pushing open the heavy glass door.
Between the office and the cake shop sits a homeless man. He is often there, young, stained, hair like a dried-out bush, and as usual Matthew Pity walks passed, seeming not to hear his thin refrain.
“Any spare change?”
Some minutes later however, a figure who looks a little like a Jake Standish stoops to place a cake box into the slightly rank lap of the homeless guy.
Inside is a cream cake the size of a small chicken, a donation from one loser to the next.
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