Please Bow Before Her Majesty the Pound Sterling

He rummaged through his bags like a madman, making his academic documents fly out in all directions. He looked through his only drawer of clothes, to no avail. He remembered his old back pack and a cunning smile stretched across his lips. His hand dove in the front pocket and his fingers clasped what looked like a discoloured notebook. ‘Aha!’ he exclaimed in a loud voice. It was a passport. He opened it and looked at the second page. ‘It expires in a year! Still valid!’

The passport was Canadian, and he had never used it. The only useful thing his mother had ever given him was this second nationality. When his mother had first applied for his Canadian passport, she had entered her own surname as Rupert’s family name – for she was separated from his father and had decided that he should have her name – giving Rupert two identities: Rupert Ricks and Rupert David; a fact he had never really paid attention to or thought especially interesting, until then.

‘It’s all falling into place!’ Rupert thought. ‘I take the money, run to the airport, buy a ticket to Canada, maybe Toronto – do they still sell tickets at the counter, like in the movies? – and then start my new life. The bookshop will press charges and the police will chase me, but they’ll only be after Rupert Ricks and – and he’ll have vanished. It’s perfect!’

A shadow appeared over his eyes as the thought struck him. ‘What am I talking about? Do I seriously think I will take the bags with the notes, put them – where, in my pockets? My pockets can’t hold three thousand and two hundred pounds worth of notes, especially not without anyone noticing a thing. I can’t commit theft. I’m not a criminal. I couldn’t live with myself. I’m a Raskolnikov, I’m sure to go mad and give myself up somehow; or I would mess it up. The slightest unexpected detail can ruin the whole operation and land me in trouble without an additional penny in my pocket. Don’t be so ridiculous, Rupert.’

The laptop rang to notify an email had just arrived, and it pulled Rupert out of his reverie. He jumped out of bed and read the email; it was from his former university tennis coach, Jimmy. He had arranged a meeting for Rupert with one of his former players who had now been living and working in London for over ten years. The man – Pete – was going to meet him at a Café Rouge restaurant close to his bookshop the next day at noon. ‘This is surely a sign,’ Rupert couldn’t help thinking. ‘Here I am, dismissing the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever had, and the next second I receive help from Jimmy. If there was a God, I would be convinced it’s a sign from above, a pat on the back for refusing to commit a crime. This Pete could save me!’

A sense of excitement seized Rupert and he couldn’t shrug the smile off his face for the rest of the day. Even the repetitive song from downstairs didn’t bother him; the noise from the main street outside his draughty window failed to irritate him; and the discovery that his new roll of toilet paper had only lasted one day in the shared bathroom didn’t make him want to hurl the other rolls through the window!

On his way to Café Rouge, he walked past the bookshop and nodded to Gemma who happened to be placing books in the window display. He was secretly smitten with her but dared not ask her out; she was, he thought, out of his league. Plus, he had too many concerns to entertain such thoughts. He blushed as he waved at her and looked away, finding the traffic lights suddenly fascinating.

He found Pete waiting for him outside the restaurant; a tall, dark, sharp-looking man. He wore a sparkling suit and looked as if he had always been destined to wearing such shining outfits. Rupert felt out of place and quite shabby with his rubbed off coat, tennis t-shirt, worn out jeans and no-longer-shiny black shoes.

‘You must be Rupert?’ said Pete, smiling like a prince charming.

They entered the restaurant and sat down at a table.

‘I just came down from the office and forgot to take my wallet with me; can you get this or should I run back…?’

Rupert was stunned. He couldn’t ask him to pay; Pete was the one doing him a favour, taking time off work to chat and maybe help him find a job. It was only natural that Rupert should treat him – but he didn’t have enough money left in his account to feed himself, let alone someone else. He nodded with a forced smile, but the voice inside his head was panicking.

Pete winked and said: ‘Thanks mate, next time will be on me.’

Rupert hated it when people said that; there was never a next time – or if there was, this time was always forgotten.
As much as Rupert wanted to make the most of this meeting, he could not focus on what Pete was saying; his mind was stuck on how he could afford to pay the bill. He desperately looked for the cheapest item on the menu, and found “PAIN – 1.95”. There was no other option. When the waiter came round and they ordered (Pete: “ROUGE OLIVES – 3.50” and “CROQUE MADAME – 9.95”), Pete looked at Rupert with a smile: ‘Not hungry, I take it?’

Just as Rupert was shaking his head, he imagined the croque madame and his tummy grumbled. He was starving. Pete kept on talking, recalling good times he spent in America with Jimmy, reciting exciting matches they had gone through and praising Jimmy to the skies. Rupert nodded regularly but couldn’t bring himself to take part in the conversation. He couldn’t take his eyes off the olives and every one of Pete’s words bounced off his mental wall; and Pete was so happy to be able to talk without interruption that he didn’t even notice he was speaking to himself. ‘Fancy an olive? Those chillies really do bring out the flavour.’

‘Actually, yes, I will have one of the bloody olives I’m paying for!’ he wanted to shout back, but he refrained from doing so.
He simply nodded and swallowed it whole before Pete could even hand the plate over. If someone had asked Rupert during the meeting what they were discussing, he would not have been able to answer. The stress had overwhelmed him and it was all a complete waste of time – and money. When Pete finished his croque madame and looked at his watch, Rupert told him he should feel free to get back to work whenever he wanted and that he himself would order some coffee and stay a little longer.

‘Thanks again for lunch, mate, we should do this again some time,’ Pete said as he shook Rupert’s hand. ‘And good luck finding a job!’ he added. Rupert did all he could to refrain from ripping his head off his neck.

Rupert looked around and saw no waiters in the room. He stared at the bill, then at this pocket, where his wallet was, and decided that he could not go through. He seized the opportunity while it was there. He stood up and walked quickly to the exit. As soon as he passed the doorway, a crushing feeling of guilt pressed against his chest. He felt like the biggest criminal of all times. It seemed to him that everyone who walked past could see right through him and was judging him on the spot. He could see himself through the waiter’s eyes, and he hated what he saw. He felt the waiter’s anger and frustration with twice as much intensity. What he had done could be considered a crime per se, but it wasn’t really. It was a common occurrence, as any waiter could confirm. Yet Rupert felt like Christophe Rocancourt, Hollywood’s biggest and most notorious conman. ‘I’ve just robbed a restaurant. How am I better than Bernard Madoff or any other fraudster? In fact, I’m even worse, because these notorious thieves are clever. They steal millions because they’re brilliant. What I did was easy; I’m a coward. Anyone could do this. A dishonest mind is all you need to steal from a restaurant.’

The pain – for he really did feel a pain in his chest – was too great to go on. He was not made out of the same stuff as criminals. ‘I’m not like that. I’m a good person who wants the wellbeing of all. Stealing is not what I do.’ So he went to the closest ATM and withdrew some cash. He couldn’t help but look at the balance on the receipt. It read “£5.43”. He shook his head and went back to the restaurant. He left the money on the table and didn’t wait for the change; he was too ashamed.

The incident plunged Rupert into a deep reflexion. He forgot to eat that evening and he couldn’t fall asleep; his mind was restless. He entered a state in which reality is altered and which can only take place at night; the type of state where anything seems possible and where everything is unusually clear – until the next morning, when reality surfaces and washes away the enthusiasm of the previous night.

While he was in such a state, Rupert reflected on his beliefs and on what they had become. He had taken environmental issues at heart as soon as his academic path had led him to learn about them. He saw how focusing on preventing the disastrous consequences of climate change could be the solution to everything: to world hunger, the growing scarcity of resources, human rights violations and even to war. He saw green, sustainable development as a rallying point for all stakeholders of the Earth; something everyone could agree upon. He didn’t understand how some people could not see what he saw, and he wanted to open their eyes. He wanted to play his part in the world and help the planet and the future generations the best way he could. His love for humanity made him eager to tackle every day with bursting energy; contributing to the world effort to protect Nature and all its living organisms – including humans – was his raison d’être. This driving force led him throughout his six academic years.


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