a glass of celebratory champagne
‘Scum!’ The shaven-haired youth gave the dark bundle a size ten kick as he passed on his way to ‘The Three Horseshoes’.
Jimmy Driscoll, the dark bundle, shuffled deeper behind the large Biffa bin, pulled his hat down over his eyes and his sleeping bag over his face. It was going to be a miserable night, he thought, as the icy wind snatched at his covers and wheedled its way in through every tiny perforation.
‘Morning, Jimmy!’ Polly called out cheerily from behind the desk as Jimmy pushed open the glass door the next morning. ‘Cold night?’
‘Not too bad,’ Jimmy replied.
Polly nodded compassionately.
The inner library door swung open again and Polly lowered her voice now that the room was no longer empty. ‘I’ll bring the paper over.’
Jimmy kept his head down, avoiding the contemptuous gaze of the old lady that had just come in to return two paperbacks, and made his way to the obscured desk in the corner where he spent a good two hours reading the newspaper every day. On Tuesdays, when Miss Staunton had her day off, Polly would bring him a surreptitious cup of coffee and a digestive biscuit, but today was Monday and Miss Staunton was in the back room cataloguing.
Jimmy Driscoll lived by routine. It shaped his day. Awake with the sunrise, he would carefully roll up his bedding, wrap it in plastic and secrete it behind the bins, before making his way to the public toilets for a wash and shave with a plastic razor. Every day he would go to the library, chat to Polly if no one was around, and sit concealed in a corner while she turned a blind eye. The rest of the day was spent sitting at the shop-end of his alleyway receiving equal measures of generosity and abuse.
Monday was cold. Shoppers were in a hurry with coat collars turned up, and change was hard to extract with gloved fingers.
Sleet fell, the grey evening quickly grew dark and the streets emptied. One or two stragglers seemed to be making their way towards the pub, but, other than that, the night was quiet.
Jimmy decided that the best course of action would be to tuck himself up as early as possible and keep warm. He fumbled for his bedding in the dark, shook it out and was about to lay it down when he noticed something.
Somebody was on his patch.
Some drunk, he suspected.
Jimmy knelt down and shook the figure, but there was something about the man that rang alarm bells. He did not have a sleeping bag. Jimmy could feel that he was wearing a thick woollen coat.
Putting his cheek to the man’s nose, he realised he was not breathing. He was as cold as granite. Jimmy ran up and down the deserted alleyway, then back to the man.
He was Dead.
Snowflakes fell as Jimmy stood there, transfixed, unable to determine what do to. Would he incriminate himself by reporting it or even by being spotted near a corpse? Nothing could be done to save the man. That much was obvious.
Jimmy shivered. This was no night to be outside on the streets.
Jimmy finished buttoning up the slightly large coat and looked over at the dead vagrant.
The cold light thrown by fallen snow enabled him to see the man clearly now. He was in his late fifties, perhaps, well-fed, no wedding ring, but he was wearing a watch.
He wouldn’t need that any more, Jimmy reasoned, and strapped the Rolex around his own skinny wrist, noticing the coincidence of the inscribed initials, JD.
With one last look, Jimmy put his gloved hands into his pockets and began walking.
The snow continued to fall.
Jimmy missed his coffee and digestive on Tuesday. Instead, he walked the streets.
People said, ‘Excuse me,’ and ‘Chilly day,’ and he smiled back, exhilarated, enjoying the exchange of small talk.
Feeling a leather wallet in his inside pocket, he treated himself to a bowl of soup and a brown roll when his watch told him it was midday. And as he left the small cafe, he felt a thrill when the waitress called out, ‘Bye!’
Outside, he thrust his hands into his overcoat pocket and contemplated which way to go.
He felt something small and flat at the bottom.
Taking off his glove, he realised it was a key, but to where? He searched in the wallet until he found, between two credit cards, under the name James E. Daniels, a small business card with ‘New address’ printed at the top. It was a road name he recognised. Of course, he could go back to the library to look it up, but what about Polly? Instead he bought a local map from the newsagents and began to walk.
Jimmy arrived at Brinchard Lane to see a man with a mallet knocking down a ‘Sold’ sign from outside number 2 and loading it into his small van.
It was a large, detached brick and flint cottage.
Tentatively, he walked through the garden gate and knocked on the door, not really knowing what he would say if a woman, as yet unacquainted with her new status of widowhood, saw him wearing her husband’s clothes.
No one answered, and, on looking through the window he saw boxes, some open, some stacked.
Of course, the key worked.
The house was warm. The thermostat had already been set. There were labelled boxes everywhere, but Jimmy headed for one immediately that said ‘Photographs’. He rifled through the contents. There were several framed photographs of landscapes, the dead man with what appeared to be his elderly parents and a variety houses.
No family then, Jimmy surmised. This was confirmed when he saw that the only furnished bedroom had one single bed.
By sunset, Jimmy had unpacked, storing the photographs in the cupboard underneath the stairs, and had put a ready meal into the microwave.
Jimmy no longer frequented the library, although he often thought about the kind-hearted Polly, and so he was unaware of the poster the police had asked her to stick up with a photofit of the deceased man. The familiar details in the picture had gnawed away at her until, finally, she remembered a very similar man who had recently come into the library just having moved into the area. She seemed to recall that he had been asking for information about badminton clubs and she had given him a copy of the local magazine, Lifestyle. She had circled the sports club section on page three.
Meanwhile, Jimmy’s life had changed beyond his wildest dreams. He cleaned his windows, kept the house immaculate and even did a bit of gardening for his elderly neighbours who knew him as James. And, having found the pin number of his gracious benefactor in the bedside cabinet drawer, he had access to unimaginable funds, and paid in cash for everything.
It was while he was at the supermarket checkout late one Friday evening that he heard a familiar voice.
He turned around to see a puzzled Polly. She hugged him. ‘Jimmy, I hardly recognise you. I’ve been so worried. It’s been ages.’
She looked him up and down and smiled. ‘You’ve done so well for yourself.’
‘I…I…Hello, Polly,’ Jimmy finally managed.
She could see he was still shy and humble, still the lovely man that he always was underneath.
‘Where do you live now, Jimmy?’
She was beaming at him and Jimmy was suddenly full of confidence.
‘Brinchard Lane.’ He swallowed. ‘Come back for supper!’
Polly blushed, thought about it for just a second and agreed, and before she knew it, they were getting off the bus together at the end of Brinchard Lane.
Polly thought the house was wonderful.
‘Have a look round,’ Jimmy offered as he chopped peppers and onions in the kitchen.
Polly wandered across to the oak bookshelf in the living room and trailed her fingers across the books. She let out a little gasp as she pulled out one of her favourite books, Lucky Jim. They shared the same taste.
As she opened it, out fell a red passport. Smiling, she turned to the back to see Jimmy’s photograph and had the shock of her life when she saw the face of the dead man, who, she now realised, was called James Daniels.
Polly felt the blood drain from her face then flood back in. She looked around the room, colours merging in a tornado of confusion.
There, on the coffee table, was ‘Lifestyle’ magazine.
Fingers trembling, she turned to page three and stared at the red ring, horrified.
Slowly, it dawned on her.
As she slipped out of the front door, she heard Jimmy singing in the kitchen.
With the pot bubbling, Jimmy poured out two glasses of Merlot and went to the foot of the stairs. ‘Polly, would you like a drink?’ he called.
He carried the glasses to the coffee table, plumped up the cushions, lit the fire and waited. The room looked soft and cosy. Upstairs was still a bit sparse, but maybe Polly would have some ideas about what to do with it.
Seeing a book on the arm of the chair, Jimmy got up to replace it and was thrown into bewilderment when he saw the passport lying on top of it. He didn’t own a passport. It must have been tucked inside the book…
Suddenly, there came a man’s voice from the doorway.
Jimmy looked up and saw two grim-faced policemen.
‘Cheers,’ said the taller one sardonically, glancing at the wine goblets.
It would be a long time before Jimmy found himself on the streets again.
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