The Boy under the Table

In the evenings, about half an hour before bedtime, the boy would come down the stairs and sit quietly in his favourite spot, which was under the dining table. He used it as a den where he could read books, draw sketches, or just listen to the grown ups. Though his foster parents were amused by his behaviour, it certainly didn’t cause them any concern. He was quite unlike the last boy they had fostered; a strange lad who would sit rocking backwards and forwards in the cupboard under the stairs. The new boy was a bit of a loner, and occasionally given to some rather uncouth language, but reasonably well-behaved. With no television, the grown ups would listen to several radio programmes and then chat about the news or the events of the day. The boy under the table always looked forward to friends or relatives calling by for the evening. It gave him the chance to place a face to some of the people his foster parents had mentioned. When he heard names like ‘Our Harry’, ‘Charlie Sideways’, or ‘Vera from work’, he would sketch them in his pad, and later see if they matched his illustrations. Most of all, he enjoyed listening when the visitors exchanged stories and memories from the past. Sometimes, the grown ups would lower their voices to a whisper, or even spell out certain words, but the boy under the table missed nothing. The stories he heard were not always new. In a year, some might be repeated several times. They were taken out like family heirlooms, polished up, adjusted, admired and then stored away for another occasion or a different visitor. But there was one particular story which always fascinated him, and he knew it by memory. It was one which was often told whenever the conversation turned to money, wealth or success. The story was interesting enough, but it was the listeners’ reaction to its ending that puzzled him. They never laughed and he couldn’t fathom it out, because he always found it hilarious. Sometimes, he had to bury his face in his sleeve to stifle the giggles.
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The story took place many years before the boy under the table was born. It concerned a young man making his way in life in a northern city where there was much unemployment and fierce competition for jobs. He was called Edwin and was a distant relative of the family. Unable to find work, he borrowed a handcart and went around the local tailoring and dressmaking firms buying up, or scrounging, unwanted material. He then pushed the handcart to market and sold the material to passing customers. After a few months, he had started to make a reasonable living. Then, one afternoon, while he was having a cup of tea at the market cafe, someone stole his entire stock. He had spent all his money that morning buying the material and was distraught. Fortunately, a young butcher working in the market took pity on him and gave him a shilling (15c) which, in those days, was enough to get him back on his feet again. Years later, Edwin would point to that single act of generosity and declare that it was the moment his fortunes changed for the better. Some weeks later, he left the market and started to buy and sell scrap metal. One success led to another and, moving further north, he gradually built up a successful scrap metal empire. His name and his yards were clearly visible from trains approaching several large cities. With the profits, he bought a large country mansion to match his rather large wife, took his family abroad on holidays, and sent his children to the finest public schools. Having entered politics with the right party, he became chairman of the city council and even served a term as mayor. A knighthood was sure to follow. Needless to say, when he retired, Edwin was a millionaire, and, in those days, that really meant something. One day, dressed in an expensive camel hair coat, he went to visit his various relatives and passed the market where his working life began. Ensuring that his chauffeur driven limousine was parked where it wouldn’t be vandalised, he made his way into the building. He had to return there for one last time. To his delight, he discovered that his benefactor, the butcher, was still running a meat stall. He asked the old butcher if he could remember him, but the man just looked puzzled and shook his head. ‘Well, my name is Edwin. Forty years ago, I worked here selling material from a handcart. One day, you helped me out when my stock was stolen. You gave me a shilling.’ The butcher then remembered and said he believed that Edwin had done quite well for himself in the intervening years. Edwin agreed, but admitted that he had failed to return the shilling to the butcher before leaving the market for a new life.
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‘I never forget a debt, particularly one as important as the one I owe you.’ Then, after fishing around in his camel hair coat, he handed a small envelope to the butcher. When he left the market that day, he walked with a spring in his step knowing that he had finally repaid all his debts. Inside the envelope was a shiny shilling piece. So how did the listeners respond to the story? Usually, they nodded their heads sagely and agreed that it was important to clear one’s debts in life. Some mentioned approvingly that, despite such a trifling sum, Edwin had never forgotten what he owed this good man. If only people could be as honest in their financial dealings, the world would be a better place. It was abundantly clear to anyone that Edwin was a man of integrity and deserved his standing in the community. On the last occasion that the story was aired, the local pastor was visiting and was inspired enough to quote from the Psalms: ‘The sinner takes money and does not give it back; but the upright man has .........’ Suddenly, to the surprise of the assembled company, a small voice interrupted him from under the dining table. ‘Do you want to know what I think?’ it asked. There was a silence. Children were to be seen but not heard, and no one knew how to respond to this sudden and unexpected intrusion. Seeing their annoyance, the pastor smiled and raised a hand as if to say ‘let me handle this’. He then leant in the direction of the small voice. ‘Pray tell us, little man, what you have learnt from this charming and instructive tale.’ At the pastor’s intervention, the others stopped tutting or shaking their heads, and looked towards the table in anticipation. The boy under the table was about to ensure that the story of Edwin was unlikely to be repeated for many a long day. Struggling to suppress a fit of laughter, he poked his head out and announced: ‘Well, I think he was a tight-fisted old sod.’

Tony Crowley (c) 2011

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