Chapter 1: Lady Luck
I hate people. I don’t mean certain people in particular, I mean people in general. Five years living on the streets will do that to you. When you’ve begged away your dignity and grown accustomed to the looks of pity, you start detesting the very people that are trying to help you. I hate the ones that give me money and I hate the ones that don’t. It’s no longer relevant because I decided long ago that I would never go back to begging. I’ve discovered much more effective means of parting people with their money.
The gentleman in the suit standing opposite me looks just as desperate as I am. I see that same look every day on the punters that stop at my makeshift card table. If I had to guess he’s probably behind on his mortgage, his car payments and his credit cards. We share a certain type of desperation, but the big difference is that he still has a lot to lose, even if he doesn’t realise it. I’m helping him out by making sure he has a little less to lose when he gets home tonight.
He waits for my hands to stop moving and points at the card on the right hand side whilst slurring, “That’s the Queen, for sure this time.” He reeks of booze, which isn’t helping my concentration. I promise myself a drink as soon as I’ve finished lightening his wallet.
He’s completely wrong with his card choice, but it’s too early to let him know that. I want him to think I’m on his side, both of us fighting together against fate and misfortune, “Are you absolutely certain sir? Once I flip it over you’re committed.”
He pauses just long enough to let me know he isn’t sure at all. He glances over to the middle card, “You know maybe it’s the middle one. It was the middle one the last two times.”
I smile my best smile. It is an excellent smile, it has to be to keep me in business. I reach towards his new choice, “Ok, I’ll flip this one over then.”
He picks up on my enthusiasm for the middle card, “No don’t, I’m going to stay with my original card. I’m certain.”
I flip the right hand card over before he changes his mind again. The Joker stares back at us and I mimic surprise and disappointment. I prove the integrity of the game by flipping over the other two cards. The Queen sits proudly in the middle of the table. The punter exhales loudly before exclaiming, “I knew I should have gone with the middle card! I’ll have one more go.” He throws another five pound note on the table as I pocket the previous one.
I should feel bad for taking his money but I sold my conscience a long time ago, along with everything else I owned. I give him another smile, “Of course, you were so close that time, Lady Luck is on your side, I can feel it!”
After a couple more failed attempts he gives up and skulks off, no doubt towards home to explain to his wife why they wouldn’t be food shopping tomorrow. There’s no-one else waiting to play so I take the opportunity to pack up. I’ve learned the hard way to quit whilst I’m ahead, preferably before an angry punter kicks my teeth in. I hide the table in its usual spot between the rubbish bins and I head for my luxury apartment. I’m sure right now you’re probably imagining a swanky penthouse suite somewhere in a fancy part of London like Covent Garden. Well you’re right about the location, but not so much about the penthouse. The alleyway I call home is directly below a penthouse, but that’s as close as it gets. Don’t get me wrong, it’s top notch accommodation. There’s an overhang so I don’t get too wet when it rains, it’s a dead end so I don’t get many passers-by tripping over my stuff and it’s not too close to any pubs so I rarely get pissed on. All in all that makes it five stars in my book.
As I round the corner for home a large shape looms out of the shadows and grabs me by the scruff of my coat. It’s my nicest coat, the one I wear for ‘work’, so I’m more worried about the coats wellbeing than my own. I don’t need to look to know who’s grabbing me, “Hey Jimmy.”
Jimmy punches me hard in the gut as way of hello and I fall to the ground winded. He says, “Hey shit head. I’ve come to collect the rent.”
I consider pointing out that I already paid my rent yesterday, and the day before, but I know he’s too stupid to remember that far back. I pull a couple of fives out of my pocket and hand them over. He eyes them slowly, probably adding up how much two five pound notes are worth. I settle in for a long wait. When he finally gets there he apparently doesn’t like the answer, because he kicks me hard in the ribs and says, “Hand over the rest.”
I gasp to catch my breath and wheeze out, “It’s been a slow day.” We both know I’m lying, I’ve been telling the same lie every day for months. When we first started this daily encounter I tried anything and everything to save myself from getting hit. Once I even gave him all my money upfront and said, “Honestly, that’s all of it.” That day was the worst of them all. He beat me to within an inch of my life, absolutely convinced I was holding out on him.
You’re probably wondering why I don’t just move away, but finding a new patch is a lot of work and despite all my moving around this is the fourth ‘Jimmy’ I have encountered. They weren’t all called Jimmy by the way, that would just be weird. My point is, there is always someone willing to prey on the weak, and even though he isn’t gentle I don’t get the sense he is enjoying himself like some of the others did. He’s just earning a few quid in a less than savoury manner, same as me.
After trying a few different approaches we eventually settled on this particular daily ritual, and it looks like he’s sticking to the script. He stamps on my hand, not hard enough to inhibit my ability to earn money but hard enough to remind me that he could. With my free hand I reach into my pocket and toss him twenty pounds worth of fivers. He scoops them up in his overly large hands and appears content. The pressure on my hand slowly releases. He bends down until his face is inches away from mine, his breath smells like cheap alcohol and rotten food. He pats at my pockets, checking for more, and when he finds nothing he spits out, “Don’t ever hold out on me again.” Then he stalks away to find his next victim.
I wait until I am sure he is gone before pulling the rest of the money out of my sock. It smells terrible, but the corner store clerk doesn’t seem to care when I use it to buy a bottle of his cheapest vodka. I go straight to my shanty and throw on some of my less pristine clothing before starting the process of forgetting just how I got here and how shitty my life is. Every night I need a little bit more to forget. It’s not long before the alleyway fades away along with the dull ache in my chest.
When I wake up it’s morning and the ache has migrated to my head, but it’s competing for attention with my growling stomach. I dig out the digital watch I liberated from a trader in Covent Garden. It’s only 7a.m. I can’t remember the last time I had a decent meal, but in my current state I’m not remembering a whole lot of anything. I check my pockets but I already know I don’t have enough money left to buy breakfast and the soup kitchen’s not open for a couple more hours. The quickest way to fight off the hunger is to earn some quick money.
I change into my work clothes. It might surprise you that I dress up for work but it shouldn’t. One thing I’ve noticed is that clothes are powerful things. They can make you stand out or make you invisible. My work clothes are carefully selected to do both. When I want to I can get a punters attention, but I don’t wear anything distinctive, nothing I can be identified by. It’s not easy maintaining multiple outfits with my current living arrangement, there’s not what you would call a lot of wardrobe space. Keeping clothes clean is another challenge, but there’s always someone leaving their clothes at the laundrette whilst they pop into the pub next door. I’m saving the environment by popping a few extra items in with theirs, and I hardly ever steal any of their clothes.
When I’m happy that I look the part I head back to my usual spot and retrieve the table. It’s early but I manage to catch a couple of punters on their way in to work. I am just thinking that perhaps today is going to be a great day when a familiar voice bellows behind me, “I see you still insist on trying my patience.”
I slip the rest of the pack of cards out of my pocket as subtly as possible and loudly pronounce, “Step right up, see some amazing card tricks right before your very eyes.” Then I turn around and feign surprise, “Good morning Copper Penny, I didn’t see you there. Would you like to see a magic trick?”
I watch the primly dressed Police Officer bristle with authority, “As we have previously discussed you are to call me P.C. Penny. The only magic trick I’d like to see is for you to disappear, preferably permanently.”
“I’m afraid I can only do card tricks Police Constable. Would you like to pick a card?” I fan the pack out and point them towards him. He picks a card, because unlike some of the other coppers around here he’s not a complete and utter tosser. After looking at it he says, “I was hoping for your sake it was a get out of jail free card, but I’m afraid not.” I pop the rest of the deck back in my pocket and make suitably mystic noises and gestures until he says, “Will you cut it out. You know I’m not buying this, just like I wasn’t buying it last week. Even if you were a legit street performer you still need a licence. I don’t suppose by some miracle you have one this week?”
“I phoned them again, and wouldn’t you know it there was a typo in my home address. They assure me it will be arriving any day now.”
“They really should hire some new staff, if my memory serves me correctly that’s the third such typo.”
I can’t resist, “Well you know what kind of morons you get when you pay government salaries.”
That earns me a brief smirk, “I’m afraid typos or otherwise, without a licence I am really going to have to insist that you pack up your things and move along. If I see you around here again without a licence I’ll be locking you up, and trust me you don’t want to know what kind of trouble I can cause with a couple of typos. Am I being clear?”
I don’t need to be told twice. I fold up the table and drag it away. As the P.C. continues on his beat I yell out, “Six of diamonds.” His startled expression confirms I’m correct. As soon as I am out of sight I stash the table in a suitably dingy alleyway. The question now is how am I going to pay tonight’s rent?