Short Story by Bastiaan Remmelzwaal
We live in an affluent society. Have you any idea how much food is being wasted? Neither do I, but I do know that it is an awful lot. With that in mind, I have devised a system whereby I don’t pay a penny for my daily nourishment. Not a penny, ever! How does that work, you ask me? Well, it’s kind of a lifestyle that I have developed over a period of time. You may call it a talent, or rather a skill that I have acquired. Basically what I do is walk around town and keep my eyes open. You will be amazed what people leave unattended, or leave behind on benches in parks, in seating areas at roadside restaurants, in cinemas, etcetera. Until fairly recently, I used to venture into people’s homes. But one day I almost got caught and, to cut a long story short, I no longer do that.
It started with the odd apple at a fruit stall. When I was young, I used to hide underneath food seller’s tables at outdoor markets. Moving from stand to stand, I was amazed at what I found to eat. Fruits, biscuits, cakes, sweets, you name it. More recently, I have taken to more sophisticated methods of obtaining food which, shall we say, are not altogether socially acceptable. People generally regard stealing as being wrong, full stop. Seldom will anyone consider the circumstances and motives that lead someone to commit such misdemeanours. In my view, it is not the thief who is at fault. Rather, the widespread inequality in society is causing poverty-stricken individuals such as me cross the line and resort to crime. My somewhat biased philosophy notwithstanding, I do realise that I stand accused of stealing, of taking what is not rightly mine. But please, try and see my predicament from a poverty point-of-view.
Life did not exactly provide me with a head start. I grew up on a farm. My father, who himself was no more than a common thief, was tragically killed in a road accident. He died as poor as a church mouse. My mother passed away soon after that, whether from grief or from some other ailment, I do not know. Their sole purpose in life was to give their children every opportunity that they never had. Their good intentions notwithstanding, here I am, following in their footsteps, honouring a miserable family tradition of burglary and robbery. One rightly wonders what is to become of my children when they grow up.
My wife joins me most evenings. Well, strictly speaking she is not my wife, but my partner I should say. To be frank, and speaking in confidence, I have had several partners. But Jolene is the love of my life. She is pregnant with our first child. I keep telling her to take it easy and stay put while I go out. But driven by some sort of motherly instinct, she just won’t listen to common sense. I much prefer to venture out on my own. It is less risky. There is less of a danger getting caught. I have explained this to her repeatedly. I have told her that it is much easier to make a quick getaway when I am by myself. She won’t listen. Anyway, evening has arrived once again. Time to hit the road.
When you live from hand to mouth as we do, one day blends into the next and each day looks much the same as the next. Having said that, I can actually tell that today is Sunday. There is hardly any traffic on the road, no commuters rushing home. I prefer it that way. Happy families are at home, relaxing, playing games, watching TV. But, as I mentioned earlier, we no longer enter into houses because of the risk factor. Mind you, we are no longer as swift on our feet as we once were. No, no more home visits. We rather focus on outhouses, garages, sheds and barns.
This time of year, darkness falls at around eight o’clock. That’s the time when we venture out and explore. We sleep quite a lot during the day. There is not much else to do. We mix with other tramps. That is what the likes of us do. Economies of scale, something like that. We live in a shack, in the attic of an overcrowded shack to be more precise. But that suits us fine, for the time being at least. This morning I overheard a conversation. I learned of a farm, a few miles from here, where food is abundant and easy to snatch. So, that is where we will be heading tonight.
Jolene and I met at a farmer’s fair. It was love at first sight. I remember that I was rather absentmindedly eating an apple when she saw me and walked up to me. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. Since then, we haven’t been apart for a single day. I don’t fool around anymore like I used to, because I love Jolene. She is adorable, the perfect wife and soon to become a perfect mother. I have no doubt about that.
It stopped raining and it turns out to be a lovely evening. The farm is a bit of a walk, but we don’t mind that. When we are near, we stop and take a rest. We hide behind some shrubs and observe the property. At a guess, it is about ten o’clock now. There is no moon tonight, but there is a flood light between the main house and the barn. Farmers usually turn in early and this family is no exception. We make our move and we find the barn surprisingly easy to get into. We tiptoe and enter into a dark space. There’s a tiny lightbulb at the far end of the barn, near to where some cows are sleeping lightly on their feet. Our presence does not appear to disturb them, or they have not noticed us yet.
We take a few minutes for our eyes to get used to the low light. Soon dark forms are taking shape all around us. We can see a tractor, and some sort of combine or harvester. There are ploughs, feeders and balers. This is a big outfit. We climb onto the tractor, hoping to find some left over sandwiches, fruits, or sweets. We are hungry and at this late hour we are certainly not fussy. But there is nothing of interest, so we climb down and continue our search.
Jolene suddenly stops in her tracks and sniffs the air. I do likewise and smell food of some sort. Is this perhaps a diversified farm that produces not only milk but other dairy products as well? The scent reminds me of French cheese, some sort of Camembert, or Roquefort perhaps. Will we have a feast tonight? This could be a place of interest, with long term prospects. I am thinking of food security for our family, so to speak. Jolene abruptly steps in front of me, excited by the treasures that lay ahead. I have a strange foreboding and I ought to stop her. It is as if something awful is about to happen. A premonition of disaster that I remember having around that time when my father died.
We walk along a partitioning wall, with Jolene marching up front. She has thrown all caution to the wind, spurred on by the prospect of encountering rare delicacies. Then, all of a sudden, disaster strikes. There is a loud bang and it looks as if a heavy farming implement has fallen forward, right on top of Jolene. Shock and horror! She is lying face down on the floor, with some sort of metal bar across her neck pushing her down. She can hardly breathe. I go down and look into her eyes, her terrified eyes. Without being able to say a word, she implores me to help her. I try to lift the bar that is pressing her down but, no matter how hard I try, it does not budge. I walk to the other side and see if there is some way to free her, but it seems impossible. With eyes wide open, Jolene is gasping for air. I am frantic and do not know what to do while the seconds tick away and life is ebbing out of her. Once more I try to lift the deadly object and once more I fail.
I hear a dog barking. Has he heard us? Now there’s a light coming on in the main house. I must go. I have to give up trying to free Jolene. God knows that I’ve tried. I just can’t imagine leaving her behind, but I see no other option. It kills me having to desert her, but I am left with no choice. If they catch me, it’s curtains for me too. I hesitate but for a moment and then run as fast as I can. Out of the barn, over the gravel path, into the corn field. Run, run, run. Away from the light, the dog, the people. Away from Jolene, the love of my life.
I get back to our shack feeling utterly devastated. Jolene is dead, of that I am sure. Will I ever be able to live without her? Did I not tell her repeatedly to rather stay at home? She ought to have been wiser. After all, we are generally regarded as highly intelligent creatures. It has been proven scientifically that we are natural students and excel at learning and understanding concepts. I may be as poor as a church mouse, but I am definitely not a mouse. Most certainly not, thank you! I am a proud rattus norvegicus or brown rat as ignorant human beings tend to refer to us.
Jolene came to a premature end, which is unfortunate. Her sacrifice, however, is a worthy contribution towards the advancement of our species. I will advise my fellow outcasts to stay well away from spring-loaded metal contraptions that smell of Camembert or Roquefort.
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