This is a fictional short-story. It is the first of two parts, and is just over 1800 words.
The date on the newspaper was the 22nd of September. Geraldine was sixteen today, and Barry had missed another birthday. She had been thirteen the last time he had seen her, and now he didn’t even know where she lived.
Barry stretched out his legs, and gave Molly a stroke. She wagged her tail and licked his hand, settling back down across his thighs. It wasn’t too cold that night, so he hadn’t used the sleeping bag. Three layers of stout cardboard were comfortable enough for now, and the rolled up bag was nice to prop himself up on, wedged against the corner of the shop doorway. People were coming and going, heading in and out of Mr Nisha’s all-night shop next door. This was one of Barry’s favourite spots, and he always tried to get there early, just after the travel agent closed. Their doorway was just big enough for shelter, but not too deep so that nobody noticed you. He adjusted the small box, making sure that the writing on it could be seen from the street. ‘PLEASE HELP’ were the only words on it. Barry liked to leave it at that. He wasn’t one of those who pestered everyone walking past, constantly repeating “Spare some change”, like a mantra. The residents of London were used to rough sleepers and beggars by now, so Barry tried to be different. He didn’t sit near a cash dispenser, or by the entrance to a station. He would set up with Molly next to Mr Nisha’s shop, out of the way and unnoticed by anyone except the shop’s customers.
A few years earlier, it had all been so different. Barry Matthews had been a man of substance, a trader in The City, known for his skill at buying stocks and shares. He had an attractive wife, Mandy, and his darling daughter, Geri. They lived in a luxurious five-bedroom house in one of the best parts of north Essex. Mandy drove to the gym in a Range Rover, and Geri had her own pony, kept at nearby stables. There was the apartment in the south of France, and a weekend lodge in Scotland. Barry worked hard, commuting into London by train before seven in the morning, and rarely getting home at night until nine. They only had the best, and only ate the best. He didn’t have to deny anything to the two women in his life. Sure, he lived on the edge, but then so did everyone else. Credit cards with huge outstanding balances, loans to cover other loans, and household bills that had to be seen to be believed. Then there was the cleaner, the gardener, the handyman, not to mention running two luxury cars. Still, Barry used to think, I earn it and I spend it. That’s life.
Life caught up with Barry one late summer morning. Arriving at work as usual, he saw Darren Healey standing outside, smoking a cigarette. He looked ill. “What’s up, Dazza?” Barry asked in a chirpy tone.
“You’ll find out mate. It’s all gone tits-up in there.” As he replied, Darren looked as if he was going to cry. Barry walked forward, but the younger man waved him away, turning to face the wall. Taking the lift to the company floor, Barry emerged into something very different from the usual office atmosphere. Some of the women were crying, and groups of men stood in corners, talking quietly. The screens were all blank, no telephones were flashing, and nobody was doing any work. He walked over to the desk of his section boss. “What’s going on, Alan?” He asked the tall man sitting there. “Gone bust, Barry mate. It’s all over. We’ve been closed down by head office, and even New York has gone west.” He pointed at some strangers by the main doors. “They have gone as far as to bring in security, to see us off the premises. Get anything personal you wouldn’t want to leave behind, before they chuck you out.”
On the train home, Barry was in a trance. A black plastic bin-bag rested on his knees, containing the few possessions he kept at work. Gym kit, a spare shirt, some toiletries, and a phone charger. There was a professionally-taken photo of Mandy in a silver frame, and another of Geri, sitting proudly on her pony. The few minutes after his short chat with Alan kept replaying in his mind. He had to hand in his key-card, lift pass, and I.D. badge. They took his work phone, his tablet computer, and his contact book. He was handed the rubbish sack to carry out his belongings, and escorted from the building like some sort of criminal. Darren Healey was no longer to be seen. He had gone.
Mandy took the news badly, as he expected she would. She was sure that he would get another job soon, but he reminded her that hundreds of people had lost their jobs in the markets, and Essex wide-boys like him were no longer flavour of the month. They were taking on all the Tristrams and Julians from the posh schools these days. Things couldn’t have been much worse. With no salary or commissions that month, he would be unable to meet any payments. He had to have four grand, before they even bought a pint of milk. His current account was almost three hundred overdrawn, and all four cards were at their limit. All they had was the fifteen quid in his wallet, and a couple of hundred that Mandy kept as folding money. His world had ended in a single morning, and he couldn’t see any way forward.
Very soon, everything got a lot worse. They managed to borrow enough for the month from Mandy’s dad, but everything had to go. When he told Geri that he would have to sell her pony, she told him she hated him, and stayed in her room for three days. Mandy wasn’t a fighter. She had stopped work as soon as they married, and had no intention of looking for a job now. With both cars returned to the leasing company, they had to run around in a ten year old Corsa, borrowed from a cousin. Barry looked for work for a while, but his connection to the failed firm was poison. No point trying to get money from the unemployment office either, that wouldn’t cover the dry cleaning bill, and he couldn’t stand the indignity. It was obvious the house would have to go. They had bought it at the peak time for prices, and it was worth less than what they owed on it. Barry seriously thought about topping himself, but didn’t want to leave Mandy and Geri in the lurch.
Mandy was less concerned about leaving him to deal with it all though. She packed her stuff, and her and Geri went off to stay with her parents in Suffolk. They couldn’t even afford a solicitor, so had no option but to let the mortgage lender take over the property, signing away everything. Barry found himself sleeping on an old friend’s couch, feeling like he was in the way. He couldn’t even offer to pay him anything, so knew it wouldn’t last too long. Mandy stopped taking his calls. Her dad said that her and Geri were too upset to talk to him, and that he should call back when he had sorted out his life. Nobody seemed to understand that none of it was down to him. Three months later, Barry found himself on the street, his worldly goods contained in four plastic carrier bags. He sold his swish mobile phone to a black guy outside a tube station. He asked for a hundred and twenty quid, but settled on eighty. With that money, he bought a cheap sleeping bag and rucksack, a large parka coat, and some boots. That night, he watched the others as they found places to sleep, got free soup from charity vans, and unwanted food thrown away by shops. He began to learn by observation, keeping himself to himself in this dangerous new world.
Three years later, and he was a veteran of the streets. He had avoided alcohol, which caused most of the others so many problems. He had adopted Molly the Staffy after her owner, Mike the Sailor, had been taken away by ambulance one night, suffering from fits. Mike never came back, so Barry hung on to the old girl. Having a nice dog was good. Not just the company, it brought in more money. People gave you something, and would say, “Get the dog some food, don’t spend it on drink.” Later that night, a young couple approached him on their way into the shop. The girl bent down and stroked Molly, who licked her hand. When they came out of the shop minutes later, the man leaned down to Barry, offering him a slip of paper. “Take this mate, you never know, it might bring you luck.” He said it with a smile, seemed like a nice bloke. It was a Lucky Dip Lottery ticket for that evening’s draw, which had cost two pounds. Barry would sooner have had the cash, but he thanked the man anyway, and put the paper into the zipped front pocket of his coat.
The next morning he counted his change, and went into the shop to buy some water, and a pouch of food for Molly. Mr Nisha was there, smiling as always. “Good morning Sir Barry” he said in his loud voice. As he was leaving with his purchases, Barry suddenly remembered. He took the ticket from his pocket, and asked Mr Nisha to check it. He checked it once, then again, and a third time to be sure. “Sir Barry, it is a winner, I’m sure. It says here that you have to telephone immediately.” Mr Nisha let Barry stand at the side of the counter, to use the shop’s phone. After pressing some buttons, a young lady came on the line. She asked for the numbers again, and for the code number on the back. She asked where he had bought the ticket, then asked him to hold the line. After a short delay, she came back. “I am pleased to tell you that you have a winning ticket sir.” Her voice was cheery. “If you will give me your address, we will send one of our representatives down to see you, before lunchtime.” Barry couldn’t think what to say, so he gave the address of the shop, and said that he would wait there. “How much have I won?” He finally thought to ask. The girl was obviously reading from a script. “That will be discussed later sir, but I am happy to advise you that it is a substantial amount.”
Four hours later, a large black people carrier turned up. Barry’s life was about to change once again.