In the mellow evening light, the small man approached the neighbourhood beer parlour, the Jolly Mama Spot, at the side of the dusty street. He stepped carefully over one of the concrete, sewage-filled gutters that lined both sides of the street, and onto the porch of the ramshackle, wood and sheet metal hut. There were only two other patrons at the Spot just then, and both men were in a drunken stupor at one of the tables. This pleased the small man; he never liked to have much company around him.
He arranged himself precisely in a battered chair at one of the age-worn tables. It was the same one he sat at whenever he stopped at the spot on his way home from work, a ritual he had undertaken without fail for the past thirty years. He looked oddly out of place in that dirty, rundown place; a prim, little, middle-aged man in a neatly pressed, faded brown suit and well-polished, though patched, brown shoes. He had a serious look as he folded his hands carefully on the dirty table top and looked expectantly towards the once-white lace curtains that hung at the entrance to the inner recesses of the Spot. In there was the hot, dark kitchen where Jolly Mama cooked up her atrocious meals. Presently she could be heard indulging in her favorite pastime, screaming and swearing at her hapless assistants.
The small man waited, frowning at the slow service. It had always irked him. Just as well he was not going to be a customer here after today, he thought; and at that he simpered to himself. He was still smirking a few minutes later when Jolly Mama burst through the lace curtains. She was a stout, jet black, blubbery mass of a woman, with a fierce glower that never left her face. She waddled over to his table, slammed down a bottle of beer, grabbed the proffered money with a grunt and rolled off back inside the kitchen.
Normally, the poor service irritated him, and he would frown and sink deeper into annoyance as he drank. But today, by the time he had taken a sip of the cheap beer, the small man was positively beaming at his thoughts. And when he carefully placed the bottle back on the table and reached into his jacket pocket to bring out a letter, he actually chortled. At this, one of the sleeping drunks stirred slightly and muttered to himself, as if commenting on this rare event. The small man started, immediately apprehensive and drew the letter under the table as he glanced furtively at the sleeping man. Reassured by the drunk’s snoring, he slowly brought the letter out again, opened it and read it for the fifth time that day. And, as he had done on each previous reading, he congratulated himself on his brilliance.
What he read was a copy of the letter of resignation he had handed in at his office that day, at the exact end of the working day. It also marked the culmination of the ingenious plan he had carried out faithfully for the past thirty years.
He replaced the letter in his pocked, leaned back in his chair with evident self-satisfaction and surveyed the street as he returned to his beer. It was patently squalid, typical of the slums. Rows of dilapidated, one-room apartment bungalows interspersed with corrugated iron outhouses huddled on either side. Unkept children ran and played in the middle of the street, while their mothers gossiped loudly as they cooked, or washed clothes, in front of their hovels. The few men about lolled or wandered aimlessly, some headed in the direction of the Spot. At the far end of the street was a pile of rubbish which towered high and flung its noisome odor wide, competing with the stench emanating from the gutters.
The street looked just as it had when the small man had first arrived thirty years ago. Then, he recalled, he had hated it, because it threw in his face the bitter reality of his failure; a failing that had been the last thing he expected. His widowed mother had struggled mightily, in the midst of abject deprivation, to ensure that her only son got an education, and he had eventually acquired the all-important university degree. He had been the only one of his circle of friends to attain such heights, and was duly held in high regard. Unfortunately, as he soon found out, their regard was not mirrored by society, and the only position employers considered fit for a poor graduate from an obscure village and with no connections to the high and mighty, was that of a lowly clerk in the civil service. Even that only came after several years of desperate searching and pleading for favorable consideration, by himself and his mother. And all he could afford on his miserable salary, which was remitted more often than not in grudging arrears, was a one-room apartment on that street. His friends had mocked him. As they pointed out, he may have bettered his brain, but they had bettered their lives through hard, but ultimately fruitful labor. Even the lowliest of them, who had set up as a roadside mechanic, was earning enough to marry and build a house in the village. The small man’s mother had died shortly after he started working, overcome by the seeming futility of her efforts; and the small man had sunk deeper into shame and frustration.
He had been sitting in his cramped, dusty office one stifling day brooding over his state when a man had burst in, desperate to collect the necessary visitor’s forms from the small man so that he could apply to see the Director General on some urgent business. Laden with his own troubles, the small man was irritated by the man’s haste, and indicated with a frown and a curt remark his extreme unwillingness to be of service at that time. He was nevertheless lethargically stirring himself to pull out the necessary forms when the man suddenly reached for his wallet, threw several crisp bills of money on the table and begged him profusely for a form at all costs, as he simply had to see the Director right away. The small man was briefly taken aback, but he quickly recovered and pushed a form across to him. As the man grabbed it and ran off, the small man gazed, transfixed, at the money scattered across his table, with a mixture of fascination and repulsion. It added up to almost half his salary, he realized, as he slowly reached for it. He counted it twice, and, still taken aback, put it in his pocket. The rest of the afternoon passed in a contented haze for the small man, but as he left at the end of the day, an idea was slowly forming in his head.
Initially, he had been nervous about implementing his cash-for-forms deal, even though he presented it as a new official policy, hoping to capitalize on the ignorance of the public and the insular nature of his workplace, which ensured there was little communication between offices, and rendered obscure clerks like himself virtually invisible. With time, however, and a worsening economy, official corruption gradually insinuated itself into the fabric of national life, and the small man grew more comfortable. Over the years there were sporadic initiatives to root out and end such corrupt practices, but these had turned out to be window dressing efforts, largely ineffectual and short-lived, led as they were by people who benefited well from the very system under attack. Thus the small man had had little trouble evading capture.
The methodical manner in which he handled his ‘business’, as he saw it, was a source of pride to him. He set targets for revenue each quarter, and worked hard to meet them. Also, realizing that a rapidly increasing account balance might draw unwanted attention from bank officials, he kept most of the money at home. He knew it would be safe there. For one, he was careful to maintain a frugal lifestyle and a distant manner towards the other street residents, so that none suspected he was anything but poor, and none could draw near and discover otherwise. Further, the thieves and robbers of the city generally considered the residents allies and not targets, due to their poverty, and so left them undisturbed, coming to the area only for respite from their nightly raids on the rich.
The street residents were also left undisturbed by forces of progress. Over the years, neither the inept local government, nor the negligent landlord who owned the entire street, showed any interest in improving the area, leaving the gutters and garbage to overflow.
In keeping with his policy of minimal expenditure, the small man had over the years, joined with some other similarly tight-fisted residents to steadfastly defeat several proposals to improve the street through self help projects, such as collecting rubbish or putting in proper drainage instead of the open gutters. Seeing that undertaking the projects would have to be funded by the residents themselves, the small man would join with other niggardly residents to form a loose association of opposition to the reformers whenever they began their social improvement campaigns. Using every available tactic- malicious gossip about the reformers, anonymous threats and so on- the association had successfully killed every such proposal, so that the street had not changed for as long as the small man had lived on it.
The small man slowly stirred himself from his reminisces and looked around him. The evening was wearing on and the Spot was filling up. Time, he decided, to move on. He downed the rest of his beer quickly and left.
On the short walk home he mentally reviewed his plans for the future. He would leave the next morning before dawn with the money and just a few possessions for the long trip to the city where he would start another life. On an earlier trip to that city, he had picked out a house suitable for the new image he would project, that of a retired businessman. Once he had settled in, all the pleasures of life he had diligently abstained from so far would be his to pursue. His heart swelled at the prospect, and visions of the joys awaiting him filled his mind and eyes. Blinded by this glorious sight as he approached his dwelling, he misjudged his distance in leaping across the street gutter, and slipped and fell. He slammed his head hard on the concrete lining and then lay quite still, half in and half out of the gutter.