A Friend in Need

Charlie drew his worn jacket tighter around his shoulders; he shuddered as the wind cut through the old thin material. It had been raining for over an hour now, that horrible fine drizzle that made everything so wet and miserable.
He looked up as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. A well-dressed man was hurrying to get home out of the damp November evening.
“Spare a few cents for a cuppa, mate.”
He was out of luck; all he got was a cold stare.
“Damn,” said Charlie to himself. “Lousy snob, bet he’s got a warm fire at home, can’t lower his self for the likes of me. Damn again.”
Charlie hadn’t always been down and out; he could remember the time when he had money.
“I had nice clothes once,” he mused. “Oh yes. I had three suits, fifty dollar ones they were, and I had a car to drive around. But that was all a long time ago, too long ago.”
“Hello Charlie.”
He looked up to see who had intruded into his daydreams. “Oh! Good evening, Constable.”
“Better get in the dry somewhere, Charlie, you’ll catch pneumonia in this rain.”
“Okay. I’m going.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Damn coppers.” He grumbled as he slowly shuffled down the gutter towards the old disused warehouse that he called home.
Old Charlie pushed open the door and carefully descended the rickety wooden steps to the cellar below; he stopped at the bottom to light a candle.
“Damn rats.” Said Charlie as he saw the glint of a hundred beady eyes in the candlelight. He moved slowly to the far end of the dark room, carefully placing his feet in between the rubbish that had accumulated in the four years that he had been in residence.
“Damn Rats.” He repeated. “There were no rats in my old place. Oh, no. No rats there. Now that was a place worth living in, until that day….But what’s the use.”
He suddenly kicked out at a too curious rat; it scurried into the safety of the darkness in a far off corner of the outsize cellar.
Charlie picked up an empty tin to throw after the departing rodent, but changed his mind and dropped it to the floor instead. He sat down heavily on his bed. A collection of smelly sacks and faded newspapers, and reached into a pocket for his tobacco tin and selected a large dog-end. He lit up and settled back on the bed and blew a cloud of smoke up into the inky darkness.
A sudden fit of coughing racked his meagre frame as he pulled an old ragged blanket around his shoulders. He took another puff of his smoke then carefully nipped off the glowing end and put the remnants back in the tin.
“Damn cold. Damn idiot I was that day wanted too much I did. Why couldn’t I have been satisfied with just the small jobs? Like the one I did at that jewellers in that little country town, got two hundred from the fence for that stuff.”
Charlie’s reverie was interrupted by another coughing fit. He lay back out of breath and recovered as his thoughts returned to the good times in previous years.
“Damn good smash and grab boy I was. Always did my jobs at night, and I watched the copper’s beat. Always a good half mile away they were when I did a job.” He chuckled to himself and pulled the blanket tighter. “And then I had to go and team up with that Jimmy Wallace, he had big ideas all right. Leave the small time stuff alone, Charlie, he said. He wanted to bring off a wage snatch. It’s simple, he said.”
So what did I do? Like a mug I agreed. Oh, we didn’t do so bad I suppose. The first one came off okay, the papers said that we got away with fifteen thousand, but it was only about ten. We had a good time while the money lasted; I bought a car and some good clothes. But that Jimmy, he liked women too much. Not nice ones, but the nasty flashy type. They are a mug’s game, I tried to talk to him, but he was young and he had the money so it didn’t do any good.”
Charlie sat up and blew out the candle, it had already burned halfway down, and it would have to last a few more nights yet.
“So I wasn’t surprised when young Jimmy said he was low in cash. I agreed to another wage snatch, but this time, I said to Jimmy, let’s make it a big one and then get out of the game. Jimmy agreed, but only because he liked the idea of a lot of ready cash. He wouldn’t make this the last job. Oh, no. I had met his type before. His money would go on women and then he would want to do another job.”
Charlie half smiled to himself at the thought of their last big haul together, his thoughts wandered back to the day when they sat side by side in a stolen car waiting for the wage van to drive along the quiet stretch of road.
“Yes everything went fine until we rammed the van, the damn driver had a truncheon and he knew how to use the thing.
“Jimmy grabbed the money satchel and ran, leaving me to fight the driver. Well I was touching forty even then and certainly no match for a young fellow like that, I called for Jimmy but he just turned and smiled. That was the last I ever saw of him, they say that he got away with over thirty thousand and I did ten years in the pokey for nothing.
“And what happened when I came out? I planned to go straight, but who would employ a fifty-year-old ex con? Nobody!
“Even the small time smash and grab was out of the question, far too much security. So what do I do? Tramp the streets begging for the price of a cuppa.”
Charlie shivered as he snuggled further into the threadbare blanket and smelly sacks in a vain attempt to get warm.
`Tomorrow,’ he thought, `yes tomorrow I will find Jimmy, he won’t let old Charlie down.’
His eyelids drooped as fell into a dreamless sleep, leaving the cellar to the rats.

© Peter Ryan 15/07/1997

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