Please Bow Before Her Majesty the Pound Sterling

Of all the clothes he lacked, socks were those Rupert missed most. Reusing underwear was certainly inconvenient – and those he had left had so many holes they didn’t quite serve their purpose any more – but they were hidden and their smell was concealed by another layer of clothes. He could easily do with only one pair of trousers, same for his coat and shoes. He had enough t-shirts to be comfortable, and anyway the bookshop he worked in provided him with one of their own.

But socks – those were a pain in the butt. As soon as he removed his shoes, the reek invaded the room and directed everyone’s attention to him. His toes always felt oily because of the grime that accumulated in the fabric. The filthy socks were slowly ruining his only pair of shoes by rotting them from the inside out. The few times he cleaned them because he could no longer deal with the stench, there had been too little time to dry and he had had to spend the next day with humid toes and a different type of smell – which, truth be told, was a welcome change.

The reader must be wondering why Rupert didn’t simply buy another pair of socks, and we could go on discussing this issue for ten more pages if we had the time and interest – let’s just say that he didn’t have the time, the energy nor the money – yes, even to buy socks – to get to a store that sold them. Every penny he could save, he used it to pay for his rent, his transport and to buy food. There was no room for socks in his budget – nor for any other item of clothing, for that matter.

Rupert Ricks lived in Watford, northwest of London, in one of three rooms of a shared house. The living room had been converted into a bedroom and lodged a Polish father and his seventeen year-old son. The father had the habit of walking drunk around the house at any time of day, naked as a baby, swinging his member as he stumbled past Rupert’s room and into the bathroom. The son, through no fault of his own, was regularly seized by epileptic fits and while still stunned by the seizure, he wandered aimlessly through the house, like a zombie, sometimes subtly reminding Rupert that he had forgotten to lock his door – usually at the worst of times.

The other room was shared by a group of dodgy and smelly men whom Rupert had never met, even after living there for close to a year. There were never more than three men in the room at any one time, and they always left at five to seven in the morning, silent as a troop of hippopotamuses rolling down the stairs. They came back at nine in the evening, sometimes ten, but they rarely were the same men as those who had left in the morning. Rupert knew because sometimes they spoke Spanish, other times English, and the voices changed – there had even been a woman once, but we probably shouldn’t count her as one of the three daily lodgers.

In all, six people shared the bathroom, and that meant a lot of pubic hair and dry urine on the floor and edges of the toilet every day. The only good thing about the dodgy and smelly men was that they never used the kitchen – Rupert and the Poles were the only ones who used it. Not that he had much to cook or store anyway.

Despite the shabbiness and poor living conditions of his accommodation, Rupert still had to pay rent. And a cheap rent, it wasn’t. Yet, four hundred and fifty pounds per month for a room was considered cheap in the Greater London area, so he had no choice but to consider himself lucky. Rupert had recently been seized by a gripping fear and it now haunted him. The rent was sucking every penny he made from his weekend shift at the bookshop, and his savings were feeding him. In fact, his meagre wage didn’t even fully cover his rent – it hadn’t been a matter of urgency until he realised only three weeks ago that his savings were growing dry.

Rupert was twenty-four years old, with a Bachelor in Biology and a Master’s in Sustainable Development and Climate Change. Up until two years ago, he had been a professional tennis player in the sense that his name featured in the professional world ranking, but not that he could live from it. Tennis had paid for his Bachelor’s degree in the United States through a full scholarship, and he had paid for his Master’s degree still in the United States by giving countless tennis lessons on the side. Unlike a majority of young educated Brits, he was debt-free – but no less broke.

Money earned in tennis tournaments and left over from his lessons had constituted a considerable amount of savings, but a year of unemployment and low-paid part-time positions had eaten up his savings as easily as a rat can gnaw its way through a wall. London was known to be the place to find a job, but unfortunately the word had spread and competition was higher than ever – especially in the charity sector, where competition for jobs, as it happened, was highest. He had tried to get a position as a tennis instructor in various clubs, but none were looking for a long-term coach. He had had the opportunity to teach children for one month during summer camp, but as soon as summer had ended, the club had turned its back on him. They had been and still were keen to invite him to play club competitions for them against other clubs – eager to use his level to their advantage – but when he mentioned getting a few coaching hours per week, they mysteriously went silent.

He had managed to find a job as a bookseller for a large chain six months previously, but he only worked weekends. He was closing the shop when an idea struck him – and it pressed on his mind every minute of every day ever since. It had happened close to three weeks ago, shortly after he had discovered that his savings account wouldn’t be able to feed him for much longer.

The manager of the shop had entrusted Rupert with locking up the till and putting the cash away. For the last month and a half, he had been putting the cash away of all four tills by himself, with only CCTV watching. The opportunity had first struck as completely insane and unworthy of consideration, but his mind had been working at it without him even noticing, trying to find ways to make it work and get away with it.

Now, it must be said that Rupert was the kind of man who had never committed a crime in his life and who – in normal circumstances – would shudder at the thought. As a teen, he had transgressed the rules many times – in most cases, due to peer pressure – and every time, he had felt painfully guilty afterwards even though it did harm to no one and the only potential punishment was a slap on the wrist. He had studied sustainable development in an effort to make the world a better place. He had been infected by the young person’s blind desire to change the world, and in his eyes, this had to be done at an individual level through helping one another. He had been primarily seeking work in international development charities that provided help and assistance to people in need in developing countries; he wanted to help raise the most unfortunate of us out of poverty and misery.

Yet Rupert Ricks, in spite of himself, was contemplating to commit theft. To a person like him, it meant practically the end of the world. But to understand his reasoning, one had to fully appreciate his position. Every month his bank account’s balance decreased, and despite his relentless efforts to find another source of income, his prospects were as gloomy as Green Park at night. He calculated that in the “business as usual” scenario, he would be kicked out of his room in a month’s time and forced to live on the street. All his life, Rupert had entertained a single terrifying idea, one that froze his blood in its veins and made his heart unravel as soon as it entered his mind: to become a homeless beggar. He had always told himself: ‘As long as I have a roof and four walls around me, and food on the table, I am happy.’ And truth be told, he had never thought that he would ever be unhappy.

His parents were no more; they had passed away heavily indebted and had left him a few heirlooms he had already sold on eBay to afford having his laptop repaired – which, since then, had developed a new problem he couldn’t afford to fix. He was an only child and therefore no siblings to turn to. His father had been an only child as well, while his mother had a brother who lived in Canada who Rupert had met only once. His only close friends lived in America. Rupert was alone and had to rely on himself.

One Friday evening, as he was lying in bed, reluctantly listening to “Let It Be” by The Beatles played on repeat by his Polish flatmates downstairs, he thought more deeply about his plan. ‘Each till has between eight hundred and a thousand pounds at the end of an average Saturday,’ he told himself. ‘There are four tills, which means I can leave the shop with a minimum of three thousand and two hundred pounds if everything goes well. This is a large enough sum to start anew in a place that has plenty of employment. In America I would be sure to find something, and converted into dollars I would find myself in the possession of a good amount of cash. Oh, how I wish I could live there legally and have the means to travel!’ He paused for a second. ‘A round trip flight to New York costs about six hundred pounds. This would leave me at least two thousand and six hundred pounds.’ He suddenly got very excited and jumped out of bed.

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