I emptied the contents of my hand onto the time-worn table.
We inhabited this pub during happier times, and I guess we never broke the habit.
“What is that?” asked Harry, my former workmate. Harry and I once were warriors in the halls of finance. We slashed and burned our way to enormous profits — profits we saw very little of. That sounds like sour grapes, and I guess it is. We were paid very well and on at least one occasion, our Christmas bonus equalled the deposit on an expensive flat overlooking the river — I loved that view.
We thought we were invincible.
“That, my dear Harry is a pile of thank you,” I said with an air of mystery — I do a good mystery.
“Come again, young Charles?” Everyone at the firm called me young Charles. It made it easier, and even when older Charles left the company, I continued to be young Charles.
“It’s a moderately long story, do you want another pint before I begin?”
“Nah, I’ll make this one last.”
“You know that big old RAF greatcoat I used to wear?”
“The one that is hanging on the coat stand over there?”
“That’s the one.”
“I think I will get that drink. I get the feeling that this is going to be epic — you want one?”
“No, save your money. I’m pleasantly toasted, and it should last till lunchtime.”
In the old days, we didn’t have to worry about such things — money was always there, and just like everything else in life, we expected it to stay that way.
I watched Harry make his way to the bar. The girl behind the counter was new, and Harry fancied his chances — their conversation continued for some minutes. As Harry turned to come back to our table, I watched the young lady flash her eyes and run her fingers through her hair.
“I think I’m in there,” said Harry as he sat down. From what I saw, I’d say he probably was.
“It must be your Scotish charm.”
“They all want to know what is under the kilt.”
“You’re not wearing a kilt, Harry.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t, but one day I’m sure you will enlighten me.”
We had both travelled a long way to come to London and make our fortune, and now we could not imagine going home with our tails between our legs. My hometown is Melbourne — on the other side of the world.
“So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”
“Extremely comfy, thank you.”
“You know the park across from my flat?”
“Your old flat or the new one?”
“There is only a railway line across from my current abode.” I glared at him for reminding me of how far I had come down.
“On my days off —“
“Which you have a large number of nowadays,” interrupted Harry.
“Yes, thank you for reminding me. On my days off I would take my stale bread to the park and feed the birds. I wasn’t particular, anything with feathers got a fair share.”
“That was very egalitarian of you,” said Harry.
“Thank you — one must maintain standards. So, this went on for many weeks when I discovered the substance you see before you, in the pocket of my greatcoat.”
Harry ran a cautious finger through the pile of what looked like very fine gravel lying on the well-worn table.
“I didn’t pay it any attention at first. I assumed that it had fallen out of a tree, or I had brushed up against something as I walked through the park.”
“A reasonable assumption.”
“Agreed — then the amount of gravel got progressively larger until it reached the proportion you see before you.”
“So, what is it? I know you are dying to tell me.”
“I took a sample to a girl I was penetrating at that time, and between bouts of passion, I asked her if she knew what it was. This girl loves a mystery, so she leapt out of bed, stark naked, and put a couple of grains under her microscope.”
“You have to love a naked woman who has a microscope.”
“My thoughts exactly. It turns out that she was not only good at all forms of coitus, but she was an excellent botanist as well.”
“Coitus beats Botanist though.”
“I agree, but on this occasion, she was both — result!”
“Well, it turns out that they are the tops of tiny acorn like seeds — just the tops, and they are very sought after by the little birds that live in that park.”
“Little birds, is that their botanical name?”
“She did tell me, but in my defence, she was naked, and I was imagining all the things I could do to her before I had to go to work. Smoothest thighs you have ever seen and spectacular breasts.”
“Fair enough. Any man could forget a Latin name under such circumstances — you’re forgiven.”
“Anyway, these little birds spend hours looking for the caps off the seeds. They use them to make a sort of paste. They mix it with mud and sticks and make a very sturdy nest — a bit like adding gravel to cement. These tiny nut caps are their most treasured possession — they will fight other birds who try to move in on their supply.”
“And, they give them to you?”
“Yes. I’m just as amazed as you are.”
“How do they manage to get them into your pocket without you noticing?”
“Good question. I guess it’s because I’m in a kind of meditative state — sitting by the lake, watching the birds. It was then, and still is, a kind of escape. But after the encounter with the naked Botanist, I watched them out of the corner of my eye. My coat pocket bends open just a bit as I sit and they come up from behind me and drop them in, one at a time.”
“Wow. It must take a while to deposit enough to make a pile like this.”
“I’m touched that they want to thank me. I guess they appreciate the food. Pickings must be very slim in the winter, especially if you have extra mouths to feed. Often, I would be the only one in the park, particularly on wet rainy days. That old greatcoat comes in handy. I turn up the collar and tuck in a scarf, and I’m warm as toast.”
“What about your head?”
“Large woollen fisherman’s hat.”
“I feel bad taking their most treasured possession, so I sneak back and sprinkle them under a nearby tree and hope that they don’t notice.”
“Boy, are you going to feel dumb if they turn out to be a cure for cancer.”
“I’ll risk it.”
We both went quiet for a while, the way that good friends can. We sat and drank our beer and thought back to those heady days when the world was ours for the taking.
Harry is the only friend I have left from those days. I remember the morning we turned up to work only to find the front doors chained and padlocked. I wondered how they were able to do that; then I remembered that our firm owned the whole building. The security guards were no help — I just wanted to get my stuff out of my desk — never happened — probably ended up in a skip.
As I remember, Harry and I walked to this pub and made a few calls before our work phones went silent. A couple of the directors had been fiddling the books. They knew that we were surviving on reputation and bugger all else. They packed a serious amount of cash into the company jet and headed for a warmer country. We should have seen it coming, but we were young, and thought we knew our worth — we were invincible.
The naked botanist stopped fucking me as soon as I could no longer squire her to important parties. The flat went after a few months — I wandered along in denial, thinking that the world needed my skill set, but whenever they read the name of the firm I had most recently been employed by, the answer was always the same — no room at the inn.
The blokes who came to throw me out of my flat were very good about it.
“Just take whatever you can carry mate, we’ll look the other way.”
Jolly decent of them really. It was the middle of the day, and they broke for lunch after changing the locks on my former flat.
“Can we buy you lunch young fella? Don’t take it too hard. We see a lot of this, especially nowadays. You can curl up and die, or you can come back stronger — it’s your choice.”
They were right, and I worked for them part-time for a while, but that life was not for me.
I’ve got a tiny flat with a view of a railway line, a warm coat and a good friend. My bank account will see me right for a few more months.
After that, who knows.