Please Bow Before Her Majesty the Pound Sterling

But when he returned to London and joined the real world, reality hit him with the force of a hurricane. As he continued to learn about climate change and its future, pessimism grew in his heart and he started noticing the negative side of people and society in general. As a young believer, he’d been driven by the desire to thwart the efforts of multinational corporations responsible for the greatest damage on the planet, as well as the politicians who were only after their own gain and success, using democracy to blindfold the citizens they worked for into helping them realise their own agendas.

‘But maturity opened my eyes as to the nature of man,’ Rupert thought as he rolled in bed. ‘Scientists have been telling us all for decades that the planet is doomed if we carry on living as we do. They provide evidence after evidence that rising sea level will drown countries, create economic, political and social tensions and reduce the livelihood of countless communities. They have been warning us that climate change, if unchallenged, will greatly reduce the agricultural yield and health of our soils. But even though more and more people are aware of the dire crisis facing us, a majority feels like the problem isn’t ours and as long as the consequences are not immediately visible, it can’t be as bad as “they” make it. If 97% of all doctors diagnosed a man with a deadly cancer, the man would be convinced, without the shadow of a doubt, that he is about to die. Yet when 97% of environmental scientists across the world diagnose the Earth with a serious illness that will cause great suffering – if not extinction – to our species, the majority chooses to ignore them.’

Rupert was sweating now. He opened the window to let some air in, but the noise of the traffic was too loud. He closed it and went back to his damp sheets. ‘The reason is now obvious to me: man is selfish. Man only looks out for himself, and if he isn’t immediately threatened, he doesn’t feel the need to act. What does he care if his great grand children won’t eat every day, won’t be able to heat their homes during winter and won’t have clean, drinkabe water more than once every other day? He won’t live to see it. It makes me deeply ashamed of my race to think that our political leaders plan for the next three, four or five years instead of the next hundred years. I get sick when I put myself in our future generations’ shoes, as they look back on our era and rightly curse us for our lack of consideration for our future.’

He got up, went to the bathroom and filled his cup with water. ‘The most selfish of all are those with power,’ he thought as he looked at himself in the mirror. ‘Political power, social power, and economic power. They’re the ones who could change things but don’t move a finger for the planet. Owners of large companies are partly to blame for the coming crisis. The managers of the bookshop chain – my bosses – are part of that group; the profit they earn on my back is used to destroy the planet, since it isn’t used to protect it. My bosses are helping to create a world that will destroy me – and my descendants.’

It not only made sense to him, but he felt it was his duty; he had to do his best to hurt the bookshop, and stealing from it was a good way to start. ‘It will help me start over and invest myself for the good of the planet; the result will be a weakened dangerous company and an advocate of the Earth’s health with the means to be active.’

When he woke up the next morning, he dismissed this conclusion out of hand; if he couldn’t even leave a fifteen pound bill unpaid, how did he expect to steal thousands of pounds? Nonetheless, these thoughts had a profound effect on him. He went to work as usual that day, and even though his conscious mind didn’t think once about stealing, his subconscious was justifying the theory with every detail it observed. So much so that a week later, when he received his monthly pay and saw with his own eyes that the money left in his bank account was lower than his rent – due four days later – he saw the intended theft as logical and obvious. He didn’t have a plan B; living on the street was not an option.

As he left his room for the last time on that last Saturday before rent day, he had everything he needed with him: a back pack containing all of his belongings. The Canadian passport was safely stowed away in the bag’s front pocket; the British passport had been intentionally left in the room. His few shirts and spare underwear, as well as his university papers and laptop, made up the rest of the bag’s content. He had emptied his account, and the three hundred pounds or so he had received from his last pay were stacked in his stretched wallet.

It was a busy Saturday at the bookshop, which Rupert saw as a good thing; there would be more cash in the till than the average day he had based his calculations on. To Rupert’s pleasure, no serious issue arose during the day, which enabled him to devise his plan and revise every step he would need to take. When eight o’clock approached – closing time – his palms became sweaty and his mouth grew dry. The store was already empty of customers and the booksellers were starting to dust and prepare the closure of the shop. Rupert prepared the plastic bags intended to receive the till’s notes and coins, looking about him nervously. When the clock struck eight, Gemma closed and locked the doors. Rupert opened the first till.

‘Don’t worry about it today, Roo,’ the shop’s floor manager, Mandy, said as she walked behind Rupert. ‘I’ll take care of the tills, you go and tidy the bookshelves.’

‘Oh, Mandy, aren’t you supposed to leave at eight?’ Rupert’s mind was muddled, and his heart was raging inside his chest.

Mandy worked every Saturday, and every Saturday she came in an hour before Rupert so that she could leave an hour earlier and leave the closing of the store to Rupert and his colleagues. How could he have neglected to look at today’s rota to make sure the floor manager would be gone by eight?

‘Not today. Had something to do this morning so I came in at one.’

Rupert lost his voice for a moment. ‘Is this really happening to me?’ he thought.

‘Well, don’t worry about the tills, I’ve already started,’ he said gesturing to the open till and trying to sound as casual as possible. ‘I’m happy to do it.’ He turned back to the till and started putting coins in the bag. ‘Please, oh please, leave me alone,’ he begged silently.

‘I’ll help you then, it’ll be quicker.’ She opened the till at the opposite end.

‘What am I going to do now?’ he thought. ‘She’ll see me if I do anything out of the ordinary. If I’m careful, and I turn my back to her, I can manage to squeeze a bag into my underwear, but it will be only one till’s worth of money. If I’m quick enough I can perhaps do the same with a second till, but that’s the most I can do. And what will she say when I leave the tills and she doesn’t see the bags full of notes? Oh Lord, should I call the whole thing off?’

Someone in the back of the store called Mandy and she left Rupert alone. Here was his chance; providence had given him an opportunity and he had to seize it. He stuffed the notes as quickly as he could in the bag, then he stretched the waistband of his trousers and–

‘Sorry, Roo, I’ve got to get the–’ said John’s voice, his hand outstretched to grab the dust remover in the shelf under the till.

He saw the bag of money in one of Rupert’s hands and the other hand holding his trousers, and stopped.

Rupert dropped the bag and stretched his waistband a few more times, acting as if something made him uncomfortable.
John squinted suspiciously, took the dust remover and straightened himself. Rupert smiled and John’s lips tried to smile but he ended up wincing. He finally left and disappeared behind the wall without adding another word.

Rupert sighed. The look on John’s face had hurt him. He’d seen himself in his stare, and he instantly saw how everyone would remember him after tonight. He tried to tell himself that he would never see them again so why did it matter? But it didn’t help. He was paralysed. His muscles wouldn’t move, yet Mandy would be back any second now. As he stared at the notes in the bag, he realised that he had been kidding himself the whole time. He couldn’t do it – he just couldn’t.

He left the plastic bag where it was and he went back to the staff room. He seized his back pack and walked out. He told Mandy he had to go, that it was an emergency, and he rushed across the store. He heard Gemma’s voice call his name but he didn’t turn around. She repeated it and heard her footsteps run towards him. He stopped and looked at her.

‘Is everything OK?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, something came up and I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘I’m not in tomorrow.’

‘Right, I’ll see you next week then.’

‘Do you want to have dinner some time next week?’

Rupert stared. Surely he hadn’t heard her right. After all this time, she was choosing now, of all times, to ask him out? It was now he learned that she liked him back?

‘I– I–’ he was at a loss. His landlady flashed through his mind, as well as the money in his wallet. ‘I can’t. I wish I could, I do. But I can’t.’ He turned around without waiting for Gemma’s reaction and walked out of the store.

It wasn’t the right time. ‘I don’t have room for this in my life at the moment.’ He hated himself for walking away from her, but he hated his life even more.

Rupert fell into a vegetative state. Days went by and he just lay in bed, half asleep half awake, waiting for doom to strike. He barely ate and only got up to go to the bathroom. Rent day went by and he didn’t move from his bed. Three days later, his landlady knocked at his door. He opened it and told her he couldn’t pay rent. She kindly gave him a week to get the money, and he thanked her, but he knew it wouldn’t make a difference.

He didn’t wait for her to evict him by force. He took his back pack and left the room for good. He travelled to Central London, to a spot where he had seen lots of beggars settle. He had distanced himself from his feelings and simply went through the motions. Nothing seemed to affect him; he had become indifferent to his fate. His first night under the stars was very cold and his long lived fear was justified. He soon ran out of money and quickly felt the pain of not having a penny to feed or heat himself.

Someone approached him one night, a man of about his age. Rupert had a bad feeling as soon as he saw him but listened to him anyway. The man was keen to grow his network and offered him a business arrangement; he would give him a regular supply of heroine and Rupert would have to sell it. He would pass along the names of a few of his own contacts to help Rupert start a clientele. He would keep 5% of the proceeds. Without a moment of hesitation, Rupert accepted. His life had reached a threshold where the only better option than being paid through drugs was to end his life, which he didn’t have the guts to do. Any money was most welcome.

Rupert Ricks had been willing to become homeless and turn his worst nightmare into reality as a price for avoiding to commit a crime, yet in the end he was forced to commit a bigger crime; living conditions had had the better of a man not destined to become a criminal.

Rupert saw no way out of his situation, no one and nothing could help him; he would soon earn more money, but not enough to overcome the obstacles imposed by the illegality of the means to get it. He had a life of misery ahead of him and he knew it. Before he could start this new, gloomy chapter, however, he had to formally close the previous one – so he went back to the bookshop.

He didn’t bother hiding his filthy clothes or washing the dirt off his face; he had no more dignity or self-respect, no more shame to protect. He walked through the store, followed by the customers’ disgusted stares and his former colleagues’ judging eyes. He found the day’s floor manager, which happened to be Mandy. She demanded an explanation for his two missed shifts; he answered he had lost everything and could no more be presentable and healthy enough to work in the store. He quit and, pitying him, Mandy refrained from asking for a two-week notice. Rupert walked back across the store staring in front of him but looking at no one.

As he exited the store, a hand grasped his shoulder. He turned around and saw Gemma, prettier than he remembered. A compassionate smile appeared in the corner of her mouth. They stared into each other’s eyes and she seemed to understand everything that had happened to him. Rupert was surprised at how good it felt to have someone understand how you felt.

‘Did you just quit?’ she asked.

He nodded.

‘Do you need a sofa to sleep on?’ Rupert’s eyes became misty. She didn’t even ask what had happened to him. She still respected him enough to let him save face.

‘Y– Yes,’ he managed to say with a hoarse voice. He somehow knew his worst days were now behind him.

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