Must Reads – Brenda, S.

Brenda Short

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The Gentleman Bandit

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

Standing in line waiting was the worst so far.  Roger had planned everything from the first moment that Jen had come up with the idea.  Well, actually, it was his idea really.  They were absolutely broke!  They had never been this hard up…ever and Christmas was just around the corner.  This was not the way they had planned their future, running out of money because of a virus.  Both had good jobs, a lovely home with a mortgage and cars on lease.  They were just like the average middle-class couple, until…until this pandemic hit and their companies had to close down.

At first, they had compensation from the government.  It wasn’t as much as they were earning, but it certainly helped and they could make up the difference from their savings, the nest egg that was supposed to be there for college, weddings and all of the other expenses that children brought with them.  Thank goodness, they had the presence of mind to cancel the vacation to Disneyland.  That was to have been the children’s summer vacation, but it was much too expensive.  They lost the deposit, but that couldn’t be helped.

Soon, however, the government money stopped, the unemployment ran out and the savings were depleted.  Roger was becoming deeply depressed and Jen cried herself to sleep every night.  The situation was becoming desperate, so they had a war council…wracking their brains for ideas that would save their sanity and their way of life.

The children had no idea that their parents had run out of money…and time!  By now, they were quite used to wearing a face mask everywhere they went…school, church, shopping.  Shopping!  They hadn’t done that in a while. They hadn’t gone to church either, for fear of contamination.  There was no money to buy anything, but nothing to buy anyway and now, they were desperate.  Desperate enough to rob a bank, literally and that’s what Roger said to Jen, mostly tongue in cheek, but she said, “Why not!”

So, this was the day that Roger had chosen to rob the bank.  They had worked out a plan and decided that they wouldn’t ask for a lot of money, only enough to get them through Christmas and into January.  Hopefully by that time, there would be a vaccine available for everyone and the crisis would be over.  With $7,000 they would be able to keep their home and put food on the table.  Jen had gone to the food bank last week out of desperation, but they didn’t have much of anything left.

It would be this week then, she said and so, they prepared for the heist!  Roger was impatient for this to be over.  He was so sure that he would be arrested, but at least he would be polite.  He didn’t want to traumatize the poor bank clerk.  Who would be a bank clerk in this day and age, he thought?

Soon, he was at the head of the lineup and was called over to the teller. 

“What can I do for you today?” the young woman said, pleasantly.

“I would like $7,000 in small bills if you don’t mind,” Roger said politely, “Please don’t make me show my gun.”  He didn’t have a gun, but she didn’t know this of course.

“I see,” said the woman, visibly paler.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I’m just borrowing it for a short time.  I have no alternative at the moment.  My back is against the wall.  Please don’t stall any longer.  I have to leave now,” he answered in a low voice.

She handed him a bag with the money inside and he left quickly, stopping only for a moment to hold the door for an old lady, then walked around the back of the building and into the ravine, discarding his jacket on the way.  He hiked through the trees for a few minutes, then crossed the walking trail and met Jen at the other side.  They drove around town for a while and then went home.  The robbery was on the news that evening.  The police dubbed him “The Gentleman Bandit” because he was so polite, “even holding the door open for an elderly customer as he was leaving.” 

There was a video of Roger inside the bank and another of him leaving, but there was no way to recognize him with a baseball cap and mask.  The winter jacket with the red stripe across the back had been bundled up and pushed into a hollow tree trunk in the ravine.  Roger knew that they would be looking for someone wearing that jacket, but he had bought it on a whim, years before and had never worn it because it was so garish.  However, it was a perfect disguise and was disposable.

Three days after the bank incident, they were just beginning to feel comfortable with their crime spree, when Roger began to cough and had a tightness in his chest.  Jen checked his forehead.  He had a fever and she panicked.  The children were also coughing and wanted to stay in bed. 

“God is punishing us,” she said, making everyone put on a face mask.  She bundled them all in the car and set off for the hospital to have them tested for the virus. 

“The old lady at the bank…she was coughing.  That’s why I held the door for her,” said Roger breathlessly, “She must have been sick and I got too close.  Take it back.  Tell them we didn’t spend any of it,” he insisted as she drove down the highway at breakneck speed.

Roger was admitted to ICU within minutes of arriving, but the children were well enough to send home with Jen and isolate for fourteen days.  She told the doctors where she believed Roger had contacted the virus.  Then she called the police to meet her at her house. 

“If he hadn’t gone to the bank to steal, he wouldn’t be sick,” she told the detective. 

She was convinced that they were paying for their crime.  There was a lesson to be learned and now, she had to give back the money.  After all, it was never theirs to keep. 

Only The Lonely

Well…here I was.  Back where it all started.  It was in this very café, sitting at this very table with my girlfriend Beth and we were deep in conversation about the latest band to visit our town.   I remember that The Kinks had been a bit of a disappointment…lots of loud music and not much talent when you came down to it.   And they were so good on record, but they couldn’t turn on the magic when they had to perform live.  Unfortunately, that was so common.  Most of the up-and-coming bands couldn’t even play their instruments properly…but we loved them anyway, didn’t we?

Suddenly, he just appeared from nowhere…just walked up to the table and sat down beside me, staring into my eyes like an adorable puppy dog.  I was so embarrassed, but I loved it just the same.  He was handsome – oh…so handsome and had perfectly straight, white teeth, except for one little twist on the bottom.  He had hazel eyes and long dark lashes…and not a pimple in sight!  Where had he come from?  He wasn’t local, or at least I had never seen him before.  Beth kept talking, as she hadn’t noticed him, but her conversation faded into oblivion as I fell madly in love…head over heels in love with this handsome stranger with the perfect teeth.

We began to date…all very innocently, with long walks by the river, evenings at the movies, long drives in his father’s car, stopping to admire the sunset on the way home.  Everything was like a romance novel and I was falling deeper by the minute.  But alas, it would not be long before he approached the next pretty girl and let me down gently.  He was over me and had moved on, but I would grieve this interlude for a long time.  It seemed that the love we shared was more intense on my part and just a flirtation on his.  He was happy to have a pretty girl on his arm and had no serious intentions towards any of us.

My heart was broken and I wouldn’t get over this any time soon.  Years passed, but the hurt and disappointment was ever present, although buried deep in my memories.  Nobody could ever stir up that depth of emotion in me again.  First true love is always the most powerful and will never truly be forgotten. 

Beth and I kept in touch, although we both had moved away to pursue our education and become established in our chosen careers.  Then, one evening in the middle of texting to each other, we decided it was about time that we had a reunion and spend a few days together.  We would meet up in our favourite café…apparently it was still there…and have a cappuccino at our table.  Of course, we had our own table that we always chose to sit at…the same one where I found a handsome stranger, but lost my heart.

I was sitting there when Beth walked in.  We hugged, we laughed, we cried.  It was wonderful being with my best friend again and she began to chatter away excitedly, as usual.  Same old Beth I was thinking, when she stopped talking and her mouth fell open.  Who was she staring at, and why had she stopped talking?  I turned around slowly and there he was!  Deja vous!  He sat down beside me and we all began to talk at once. 

Well, we had lots to tell each other.  Beth talked about her husband and two children.  I talked about my career and my cat.  He talked about his failed marriage and his bout with depression.  After a while and a couple of cappuccinos, Beth and I stood up to leave and he asked me to meet him later.  I looked at Beth and she nodded almost imperceptibly, so I agreed to join him in the pub.  As I left the café, my heart sang for a moment.  I had wanted this for years and now here he was, single and it seemed, lonely.

“Why do you want me to meet him later,” I questioned Beth.

“You’ll never get over him if you don’t go.  You have to sort out your feelings one way or the other, but you may be hurt badly again.  Are you prepared for that?” she said gently.

She was right.  I couldn’t not go. 

It was a very pleasant evening, but reminded me of the pop groups of my youth.  Once again, the magic wasn’t there for the replay.  I could see him with different eyes now…still the handsome rogue with the beautiful hazel eyes and straight teeth, but just another good-looking guy.  I wanted his friendship, but not his love, I discovered and when I thought back to that time of loving him with such a passion that it scared me, I realised that I was still in love with the passion itself, the being in love, the overwhelming sensation of loving that deeply, like an addiction, but no more was I in love with the man who had stirred this passion in me.  And, no one else could ever take his place in my heart.

Now it seemed, he was ready to commit.  This time, he was the one who wanted more and admitted that he had made a mistake in giving me up.  I was indifferent, but maybe a bit sad for what could have been.  There was a hollow feeling, as if I had lost something. 

We are strange creatures, are we not?  Here in front of me was the man I had pined for all these years and I had just realized that I didn’t want him after all.  The trust was gone.  The passion had evaporated.  The juke box that was a pleasant backdrop to the hum of conversation, suddenly began to play Only the Lonely by Roy Orbison.  The words were poignant.

Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight
Only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right

There goes my baby. There goes my heart
They’re gone forever. So far apart

But only the lonely know why I cry
Only the lonely

So many memories came flooding to the surface, the hurt, the pain, the disappointment.   When the song finished, I stood up, shook his hand and said goodbye.  I didn’t look back as I left.  I could move on now, at last I was free!

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

The Somme

France, July 1st, 1916:  

Soon after conscription, Allan and Bert were shipped to France and had been there now for about two weeks.  Their training was brief, not much more than how to handle the rifle and how to attach the bayonet, because it was unlikely that they would get close enough to the enemy to need hand to hand combat training.  However, Alan could handle himself in a scuffle and Bert had trained as a boxer in public school, so they felt they could take on anyone in a fist fight, but these rifles were another thing.  How could you just kill a man? 

The heavy artillery bombardment had continued non-stop for eight days, deafening some and driving others almost crazy with the constant noise of the cannon blasts and impact explosions, but it ceased abruptly over the German lines at 7:30 a.m.   Now that the barrage had stopped, the senses became more acute.  The smell of manure and rotting horse flesh was even more overpowering than the stench of the latrines and what seemed like millions of flies were more noticeable, buzzing around everyone’s face, landing on eyelids and mouths. 

Fly infestations were possibly the most disgusting thing about this war so far for Allan, the flies thriving on all this death and filth; that and the trench foot, which was a killer when it turned gangrenous.   Many a soldier lost his life, simply because he didn’t have dry socks to wear.  Allan had been warned when he first arrived and so took simple precautions against this, changing his socks whenever possible if they became wet and being careful to walk on the duckboards when he had to move around.

It was the strangest feeling when the bombing stopped.  All of a sudden there was a deathly quiet.  Not even the birds could be heard.  No coughing, no conversations, everyone was surprised and silent, waiting for the next move.  Suddenly a horse whinnied, breaking the tension.  Horses were commonplace behind the lines.  Magnificent, beautiful animals that were used to transport supplies, move equipment and pull the body carts to and from the hospital tents, but unfortunately, horses were considered expendable and at times were used as a food source.  Most horses died from exhaustion or starvation.  In many cases, they weren’t given enough water and so they found their own, drinking from contaminated puddles and dying in agony from heavy metal poisoning.  The lucky ones were shot by snipers as they worked, so visible as they moved back and forth in the daylight hours.

Now that the artillery bombardment had ceased the commands rang out, echoing along the front-line trenches, “Attack…attack!”

Allan and Bert received the order they had been dreading and dutifully climbed out of the mud-filled trench that had been their home for the last eight days.  They were greeted by the distant sounds of the enemy guns, as they walked side by side with their rifles held out in front of them, hoping that they would be able to use them when the time came.

Other allied soldiers began to climb out of the trenches and form lines.  The British and French had been instructed to keep walking in columns towards the German lines, but the Germans were well bunkered and had good defensive positions on higher ground.  The bombing offensive had had little effect on them.  They also had machine guns.  This gave them a huge advantage and they mowed down the British and French troops mercilessly as they advanced towards them, like lambs to the slaughter. 

Allan could see in the distance that men were dropping to the ground and others were just stepping over them.  Men were screaming and cursing the likes of which he had never heard before and as they continued to walk across the field, the noise of the machine guns became louder until it was almost as deafening as the bombs had been. 

“I can’t see any of them,” yelled one soldier, “Where are they.”

Allan was suddenly aware of strange whistling sounds that seemed to pass by on either side of him, “What was tha…” Allan thought, before the realization hit him that he was now within the reach of German bullets

“They’re hidden behind those mounds,” answered another.

“Can’t you see the lights when they fire?  Just like fireflies… There, did you see that?” shouted Bert over his shoulder.

Allan raised his rifle and fired several bursts at the little dots of light.  The man in front of him fell to his knees and just for a second, he balanced there…before falling on his face in the mud.  Men continued to fall, some of them just lying there screaming, dying of atrocious injuries, writhing on the ground with no one to help them.  Allan couldn’t believe the carnage that he was witnessing all around him and as his eyes closed on the horror, his mind began to wander…

“You have to have lots of patience to stand all of the dominoes on end. Sometimes it takes an hour or two, but then there’s the fun of watching them fall down, though it happens really fast.  If you space them just right, each one will knock the next one down as they fall,” Allan told his son one rainy, Sunday afternoon. 

And true to his word, when the dominoes fell it was all over quickly, just as this battle would be, the soldiers knocking each other down as they fell, just like the dominoes.  He smiled at the past memory, unable to stay focused on this systematic slaughter, knowing that his death was imminent.

“I play that game with young John every Sunday after chapel,” he said distractedly to everybody and nobody in particular, a smile forming at the corners of his mouth.

Suddenly, Allan was splattered with blood.  The soldier beside him had been shot in the head, his brain exploding all over Allan, but he just instinctively wiped his face with his sleeve and kept walking and thinking about his son…

Pain brought Allan back to the present – terrible pain in his chest.  His knees buckled and he fell on top of another soldier.  Bert looked around but before he could turn to help Allan, bullets ripped through his gut. He fell just in front of Allan and they looked at each other incredulously, Allan shot through the chest and Bert through the abdomen.  Both lay there for a few moments, the noise of the battle going on around them and then fading… into… oblivion… 

It was so calm here on the ground, thought Allan.  The war seemed ethereal, almost unreal. All he could hear was his heartbeat and the gurgling sound in his lungs.   It was all over now, the last few days of hellish conditions and fly infested food, the knee deep mud that sucked at your legs, making it so difficult to move around, the noise – the terrible noise of the bombs, the diarrhea from the lack of sanitation and tainted water, the nauseating stench of the latrines and the paralyzing fear of death. 

Somehow knowing that you were going to die and not being able to do anything about it was more frightening than death itself.  Now, lying here on top of a dead man, Allan was relieved that the waiting was over and all he had to do now was to die too. It wasn’t so bad if he didn’t breathe deeply.  This dying part was easier than living in the trenches, or worrying about when and how you would die.  The war seemed irrelevant now.  What was it they were fighting for anyway?

“Will ye have tae kill anyone?” Allan remembered his wife asking him before he left.  Now, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he was having trouble concentrating.  Did he fire his gun?  He couldn’t remember if he killed anyone.  Belle wouldn’t like it if he had killed anyone.  Everything was hazy…  Oh, dear God, why couldn’t he remember? 

“Where was Bert?  He would remember,” thought Allan, regaining consciousness.

Allan was confused for a moment.  Why was he lying on the ground, and on top of another fellow?  Nobody was moving.  Why didn’t the other man complain?  What was wrong?  And then, although still half unconscious, he realized where he was.  He looked around to find his friend Bert, but in an instant he was wide awake, his eyes were drawn to Bert’s belly.  Allan heaved in reaction to what he saw, and felt an incredible pain in his lung.  Bert’s insides were hanging out. 

“He‘s almost cut in half,” thought Allan.  “Dear God!  How could he just lie there without screaming?  Does he not feel any pain?” 

Allan wanted to scream.  Just looking at Bert’s innards made Allan want to scream. The pain in his chest made him want to scream even more, but he had enough trouble breathing.  Bert slowly reached into his breast pocket, his hand shaking as his fingers struggled with the single button, his strength fading fast, his lifeblood almost gone, and then he held his hand out to Allan.  In that hand was his prized, silver, cigarette case, the one that he had been awarded by the bank last year to commemorate his promotion to manager.  The sunlight filtered bleakly through the mist of the battlefield, but it was enough to glint off the silver and give Bert a moment’s pleasure. 

“Smoke?” he said, smiling at Allan, his grey eyes twinkling as he flipped the case open with his thumb. 

“No thanks my friend, you know I don’t!” whispered Allan smiling back as best he could, touching Bert’s hand in camaraderie with his own trembling fingers, then suddenly coughing violently, blood framing his teeth and lips, his eyes fixed on Bert, marveling at his ability to die with such dignity and grace.  He was a true gentleman to his last breath.  What were they all doing here?  What time was it?  He should know the time when he and his friend were to die…

Bert took forever to light his cigarette, slowly savouring the ritualistic habit of tapping each end on his silver cigarette case to compact the loose tobacco strands, so that they didn’t escape into his mouth and spoil the experience.  He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, to make sure the delicate wrapping paper didn’t stick to the blood that had seemed to appear from nowhere and then, holding the cigarette gently between his index and middle finger, he struck the lucifer, cupping it in his hands to protect it from the wind that wasn’t there. 

He was immediately comforted by the familiar aroma of sulphur, one of the most addictive smells for a smoker, and instinctively knowing that this cigarette would be his last, he inhaled deeply and smiled with satisfaction, his eyes clouding over almost instantly. The smoke drifted slowly out of his mouth as his last breath escaped.  It rose from his body, intertwining with his soul and disappeared into the heavens.  The prized cigarette case slipped from his fingers and became lodged in the mud.  Allan closed his eyes, but he couldn’t close out the images of his dead friend.  His last thoughts, however, were of Belle and his children.

 “I’m so sorry, my love,” he whispered as he lost consciousness again, “so sorry…”

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