The rich can have ethics, the poor can't afford them.
|Armitage Louis Frederick Smythe knew that he had led a life protected by wealth. He had tried to give it away but his accountants had written it off as a tax-deductible expense. He could not close down his businesses, that would put poor people out of work and on to benefits. He did not agree with state-sponsored laziness. He had to leave his money in various banking accounts, there was far too much to stash under his matress. So his fortune grew. And grew. It was an ethical nightmare.
Like all good ideas, the solution presented itself at 3 a.m. He would divorce himself from himself. Armitage Louis Frederick Smythe would become Alf Smith, a vagabond, a vagrant. It would be a grand adventure. He would be poor. With no expectations, he could do as he pleased. Freedom. It would be fun.
He travelled first class to St Pancras railway station. Picking the gear for his new life had been a challenge. His first shopping expedition had been to an outdoors equipment retailer, where he had invested in good quality kit. Then he saw a beggar on the street and, for the first time, he really looked. Dirty, unkempt, his mismatched clothes down-market and ill-fitting. He dropped a fiver into the man's cup, frowning.
'Where did you buy your clothes?' The query was met with a weary disbelief and a shrug.
'The Sally Alley.' It was a grunt. According to his mapping app, there was no Sally Alley in the town. When he googled it, he discovered that it was slang for the Salvation Army. He had seen one of their outlets in the tail end of Main Street but when he went in, he nearly left straight away. It smelled. It was all second hand. It was incredibly cheap. Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, he paid for clothing and an old rucksack to carry it. He consoled himself by thinking that it would make him fit in.
Travelling to St Pancras railway station first class was his last treat. From now on, it would be second class everywhere. Or bus. No taxis. Changing into his 'Alf' clothes in the toilet, he realised that he had to get rid of his designer attire. From now on, it was beggar's clobber. Bundling it up, he dumped it, but by bit, in various bins. He did not notice someone pull the quality coat out and exchange it for his disreputable one. When he realised that he had left his wallet in his coat pocket, it was too late. Picky Pete had found the ticket to Brighton and was eating his first full meal for a week. It was an unfortunate incident, but he died happy when the train derailed and he was thrown into a ditch.
Alf Smith's first week on the streets was a painful learning experience. He went hungry, he got soaked, frozen and exhausted. When was beaten up, he was taken into hospital, patched up by an overworked nurse and discharged into the night. Accepting a lift from a stranger outside the A&E department, he was assaulted and barely escaped. Once, he would have reported it to the police. Recent experience told him not to bother.
Half way through his second week, three things hit him: he had got away with it; it was nothing like fun and he had enough. He had developed a hacking cough. His day's takings were not enough for a hostel bed and some toerag had stolen his sleeping bag. He wanted to go home. Even that was not so easy. He tried to hitchhike but lifts were far and few between. It took three days to travel a distance that had taken three half hours, first class.
Starving, he strolled into his apartment block. The doorman, one he barely recognised, threw him out and warned him that he was going to call the police. Alf limped the two miles to his office, cursing his blisters with every breath. The receptionist called security and he was ejected. Another hobble and he was at his accountant's office. Hubbard was his friend. He would soon be home, sipping a cognac after a decent meal.
'Mr Hubbard is at a cremation.' The receptionist looked at him and her hand hovered over a telephone. 'One of his clients.' She answered his query in a tone that told him to leave, quickly. Standing on the street, he contemplated his problem. Then shuffled off. He had a bit of change, there might be enough for a bus ride to the crematorium. For once, he was lucky.
There was a service going on when he arrived. A small card announced that it was for Armitage Louis Frederick Smythe. Himself. Dead? He read it a dozen times. He was still reading it when Hubbard and Sophie, his Sophie, came out arm in arm. Behind them a half dozen, professional mourners, whom Alf did not recognise. He knew that Hubbard recognised him by the widening of his eyes and the way his knuckles whitened as he gripped Sophie's arm. She stared at Alf, through him, glanced at Hubbard and then fixed her eyes on the ground.
They swept by.
'You'd think that those dammed beggars would show a bit more respect.' Hubbard's voice drifted back to him.
'Ignore him, darling,' Sophie's sharp voice cut him to shreds, 'he's just another whinging scrounger'
Armitage Louis Frederick Smythe the Naive, was dead. There was no room for an ethical quandry. Dead men do not have morals. Long live Alf Smith, the Avenger.