a novella by Vivienne Blake
“Do your little bit of good where you are;
it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
- Bishop Desmond Tutu
Anne gazed round her tiny sitting room. Every surface was covered with doilies and knick-knacks. Plaster piskies rubbed shoulders with posies of artificial flowers in china bowls, brass elephants and faded snaps of long-ago holidays.
I’m bored. I can’t see to crochet properly. I’ve read my large print books and there’s nothing on TV but property programmes, cooking or flogging your bits and pieces for vast prices. Right, this won’t get the baby washed.
She struggled to her feet. However did that happen? I’m 16 inside. It just doesn’t seem possible that I’m 76 next month. Three steps and she reached the lobby, took her coat and jammed an old-fashioned beret on her head. Neat in all things, from her immaculate chignon to her sensible shoes, her lined face showed her inner peace and contentment.
‘Hello dear.’ she greeted the secretary from the office below the flat. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day. Shame you’ve got to work.’
‘Good afternoon Miss Bunting, yes it’s good to see the sun.’ Maggie watched the fragile old lady struggle down the stairs, spinsterish skirt flapping around her stick-like calves, head jutting forward as though straining to hear and see. ‘Poor old thing’ thought Maggie. ‘What a shame you have to live all on your own at the top of this grotty building. Where are your friends? Where is your family?’ Maggie went back into her office, sighed and sat down at her computer.
Anne limped down the terrace of once-glorious run-down Georgian houses now converted to offices, empty at night but for her little flat at the top of number 22. I don’t suppose they’ll be here much longer’ she mused. They must be worth a fortune as a development site on the ring road. Oh well, I suppose I’ve been lucky to live here all these years, even if all my friends have long moved away. It’s so convenient for Tesco’s, and I’ve only to hop on a bus to go into town. Hop! It’s donkey’s years since I did any hopping!
Finding herself at the entrance to the underpass, she gritted her teeth, grabbed the grimy handrail and stepped into the echoing tunnel. Anne took a deep breath and hauled herself up the ramp by the rail on the far side, wincing as the worn-out hip joint told her it didn’t like this kind of exercise.
Tesco’s brightly lit windows beckoned and she entered the frantic world of two for one and ten pence off, wonky-wheeled trolleys laden with junk food cannoning off obstructions. Oh dear. Must I really go in there? But I must have some milk and something for supper. Harissa. What on earth is that? A uniformed girl heard her muttered question.
’It’s a sort of spicy thingy that you add to couscous or other Mediterranean dishes. Very nice if you like that sort of thing.’
‘I’ll take your word for it, dear. I’m too used to my food being plain and simple.’
‘How about a nice pizza? They’re on special this week, look.’
‘No thank you dear. I think I’ll have a fillet of plaice.’
‘Down at the end of the next aisle then. Enjoy your meal.’
What a helpful girl. I wouldn’t like her job – on your feet all day and grumpy customers having a go at you. Not for me. Come to think of it, I’m jolly glad I don’t have to work nowadays; it was always so boring, though I miss the other girls in the office. But it’s different now – computers and things. I liked it when the electric typewriters came in, much less tiring, and that wonderful correcting ribbon thing made a big difference. No more carbon all over your hands rubbing out mistakes through several flimsies. Photocopiers, too – that was a great improvement. But I draw the line at computers. Never was much good at technical things, and my first go on a – what d’you call it? - word processor put the fear of God into me. I touched something and the whole page disappeared. Then, I couldn’t change the page when it got to the end and all the words went off down the bottom of the screen. Not for me thank you. I was jolly glad when they suggested I retired, even though the pension wasn’t much. Considering the low rent I pay, I don’t do so badly. Enough to get by on so long as I don’t go mad in here.
Anne looked around, a little dazed when she realised how long she had been standing still, staring at a display of exotic fruit. She made her way cautiously to the express checkout. The queue moved rapidly as the girl at the till scanned a strange assortment of products. Whoops, that one’s got more than ten. I bet she sends him packing. But the handsome, harassed father of an angelic small boy managed an ingratiating smile and was waved on. It must be wonderful to be young and good looking. Then it was Anne’s turn. ‘Hello dear, nice to see you again. How’s the bad back? I hope they’re not working you too hard.’ The checkout girl smiled. It wasn’t often that customers even noticed that staff were human, so intent were they on getting through as fast as possible.
She recognised the frugal purchases of someone living alone.
‘I’m fine Madam. That looks a lovely bit of fish. Enjoy your supper.’
These friendly exchanges were important to Anne and also to the checkout girl. Each in their way needing the boost of human contact in otherwise lonely lives.
Finding herself in the concourse, Anne stopped. I still haven’t anything interesting to do tonight and I can’t stay here waffling. She caught a glimpse of the “thumbs up” board announcing the lottery kiosk. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll get a ticket. Go on, be a devil. Fishing a pound coin out of her purse, she approached the grim-looking man at the counter. ‘What do I have to do to enter the lottery?’ she asked. The man sighed and mumbled something inaudible. ‘Sorry young man, you’ll have to speak up. I’m getting a bit deaf.’
‘Your first time is it?’ Pushing his troubles to the back of his mind, he bent and showed her how to fill in the slip.
’What numbers would you choose?’ asked Anne.
Some people use birthdays or street numbers, or they stick a pin in. Or you can have a lucky dip and the machine gives you a random selection.
‘Oh no. I wouldn’t trust a machine not to fiddle me a losing ticket.’
‘It doesn’t work like that, but perhaps you’re right, it’s more fun to have your own choice. Take your time Petal.’ And Anne looked back through her life to find some significant numbers. Oh well, here goes. In for a penny – oh no, it really is a pound. I’d better be careful.
‘Okay lady, those are lovely lucky numbers’ he smiled. The till rang up the £1 and out came the ticket: 6, 22, 34, 38, 46, 49. ‘Now you hang on to that ticket – if you lose it you can’t win.’
Back home again, Anne set about making supper on the Baby Belling in the minuscule kitchen while musing on her surprise purchase.
I wonder what Dad would have said. “Gambling Anne? Never.” But that’s par for the course if you’re a Vicar. Besides, his parishioners would have been horrified – they none of them had two pence to rub together, let alone a whole pound to waste on a zillion-to-one chance in the lottery. But when you think about all those down and outs smoking and drinking, which is worse? Giving yourself health problems with poisonous smoke and booze or adding a bit of harmless excitement to a boring existence while contributing to those good causes. No, Dad, you’d be wrong.
What would I do if I won? It would probably only be ten pounds, if what that charming man in Tesco told me is true. Suppose I won thousands of pounds. I really can’t think of anything I want, except perhaps a modern electric fire to warm the place up a bit, and a square of carpet would be useful. And I’d love a shopping trolley to take the weight off my arms when I go to the supermarket. But that won’t get rid of much, so what would I do with it? I’ve never been one to spend on myself. Lawrence in Boston and Jonathan in Sydney are comfortably set up in life – to read their Christmas letters they want for nothing; fancy cars, skiing holidays, designer clothes. They won’t want my help. In fact they’re always offering to help me and Heaven knows I don’t need it. But it’s daft to speculate. I’ve only got one ticket and I shan’t be making a habit of it.
The old-fashioned black-and-white pedestal television set started to warm up for News at Ten. It was a slow process. Ann liked to keep up to date with what was happening in the world, and the small print of newspapers was causing her no little difficulty nowadays. She hoped it wouldn’t be too long before she could have her cataracts done, as she was finding them an increasing handicap. The oculist had told her they had to wait until they were ready for the operation, but he hadn’t told her how long that would take. Perhaps she should go in and ask.
Grumbling to herself at the idiocies of politicians and their inability to answer simple questions when interviewed, Anne waited patiently through the News and weather programmes, but with a slight flutter of excitement in the pit of her stomach as the opening titles of the Lottery show came up. In the past she’d always switched off at that point, hating the frenetic applause, loud colours, shouting presenters and general vulgarity of the show, but today she leaned forward eagerly, eyes straining to make out what was happening.
Thunderball. What’s that? That’s not what it says on my ticket. Held under the light from a low-wattage energy-saving bulb, she was able to make out the word Lotto.
Now what’s happening? Another draw. Is this it? Why on earth does it take all those people and all that blether just to announce a few numbers? Ah yes, here it comes. “Triple rollover” – what does that mean? The mellifluous voice of Alan Deddicoat named the numbers as the coloured balls popped up and then rolled down the chute. ’34…49…6…’ Yes, I’ve got those, but they’re in the wrong order. ’22…46…38 and if you need a bonus, here it comes: 12′ Yes, but the order’s all wrong. Oh well, I never really thought I’d win anything.‘ Alan D. again ‘Once more, in ascending order this time: 6, 22, 34, 38, 46, 49 and the bonus ball is 12.’
Does that really mean I’ve won something? And it’s the first time I’ve ever had a ticket. I might do this again, it’s quite exciting. I wonder how much it will be. What happens now? Take the ticket back to Tesco I suppose.
Mechanically Anne followed her usual bed-time routine, heating milk carefully so that it didn’t boil. She couldn’t stand it if a bit of skin touched her lips. She washed and brushed her teeth in the icy bathroom, and put on her warm nightie, a Christmas present from Lawrence years ago. Dear Lawrence, how kind he is to his old auntie to send such lovely presents all the way from America. She had this thought every time she put it on, and her gratitude was as warming as the gown itself. Kneeling by the narrow bed, Anne clasped her hands.
Dear Lord, I’ve had a lovely day, thank you. Please look after Lawrence and Jonathan and all their families. I should love to see them. If my lottery prize is enough, perhaps I could pay for them to come and see me? I hope so Lord. And if there’s a bit over maybe I could help some more people. If it be Thy will of course, Lord. And please could you do something about that poor checkout girl’s bad back. Thank you for everything. Amen.