A Penguin Comes to Tea

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The Greatest Poverty is the Poverty of the Mind

“The Greatest Poverty is the Poverty of the Mind,” read Jonas from the board.
“What sort of a title is that?”
“It’s a reflection, something to think about, and to write on,” replied his teacher, “I’d like an essay from each of you on the subject by Monday.”
The class grumbled as usual and packed up their books, eager to be out of the hot school, and off to weekend pursuits.
“That’s dumb,” said Jonas to his friend Matt, as they strolled down the dusty road, “How can you have a poor mind?”
Matt chuckled.
“Well, I’d say you have a pretty poor mind when it comes to math! Ouch!” Max dodged out of the way of Jonas’ fist, and ran off up the road towards his house, yelling taunting comments all the way.
Jonas made a face at his departing friend, then sighed and trudged home, wishing he could have something easy for homework, like building a model of Mars or something.
Dropping his backpack inside the door Jonas went in search of something to eat.
“Hey, Mum,” he asked, slathering jam on a piece of bread, “what’s the greatest poverty?”
“Hm?” asked Jonas’ mother, who was paying bills at the computer, “what’s that?”
“The greatest poverty?” repeated Jonas.
“Why, not having enough money to cover your expenses, like food, and heating, and the mortgage, and all your clothes and shoes and hockey gear,” answered his mother.
Jonas nodded. That is what he had thought too, but he did not think his teacher was after that sort of a reply. Leaving the kife stuck in the jam he wiped his sticky fingers on his jeans and wandered into the next room. His father had just finished an early shift and was relaxing in front of the TV, drink in one hand, remote in the other.
“Hi, Dad,” said Jonas.
“Hello son,” said his father.
“Dad, what do you think is the worst kind of poverty?”
“Poverty? Is that what you’re asking about?” Jonas’ father was only half listening, his eyes glued to a TV game.
“Poverty is where you don’t have as much as the guy next door, or the rich crooks that run everything. The government is always talking about poverty, and people being below the poverty line. If they carry on wasting our tax money like this we’ll all be below the poverty line.”
He flicked the channel, muttering, “nothing good on TV anymore.”
Jonas gave his father a high five and wandered out of the room. His sister was in the office, giggling on the phone while she typed furiously on the computer, keeping up two conversations at once. Jonas mouthed at her that he wanted some help.
“What?” she took the phone away from her ear and covered the mouthpiece with her hand.
“Poverty,” said Jonas, “what-”
“Oh no, you don’t,” answered his sister loudly, “you borrowed ten bucks from me last week and you haven’t paid it back yet, so nothing doing.”
“I meant–,” Jonas began, but it was no use, she wasn’t listening.
Jonas gave up and went to his room. He picked up his Game Boy and played a few rounds of his latest game. It was too easy: he had already beaten the level several times. He wondered what it would be like not to have all the things they had, like a house and a TV and a car. Different, he supposed. Like some of those people they saw on TV sometimes, the ones who only lived in houses made of sticks. He remembered seeing some people who had had to leave their home, or lost it for some reason, he could not remember. They must be really poor. Surely that must be the worst thing. Maybe their school got washed away too; Jonas wished his school could be washed away.
After a while Jonas got up and wandered downstairs again. His grandmother had turned up, and was sitting at the table with a cup of tea, talking to his mother, who was rushing around, only half listening. His father was asleep in front of the TV.
“Jonas, there you are,” said his mother, “I have to go and take these papers to the office. Will you sit with Nana?”
“Don’t mind me,” said his grandmother, “off you go, I’ll be here when you get back,” and she smiled at Jonas as the kitchen door banged behind his mother.
“What’s up? Hard day at school?” Jonas’ grandmother could always tell when somebody was bothered.
“I have to write about poverty,” Jonas said, pulling out a chair and sitting at the table.
“Ah, not easy, is it?”
“No.”
“What kind of poverty?”
Jonas looked up. “What do you mean?”
“What exactly do you have to write?”
“The greatest poverty is the poverty of the mind,” recited Jonas.
His grandmother closed her eyes and thought for a bit.
“Hope,” she said.
“Hope what?” Jonas asked, “hope I don’t have to do it? Hope I’ll get an A?”
“Hope,” repeated his grandmother. “What happens when you don’t have hope?”
“Um, then I guess everything looks pretty bad.”
“Exactly. That’s the greatest poverty. If you don’t have hope, you can’t imagine that things will get better; you have nothing left to live for. No matter what you’re missing, or what you’ve lost, if you have hope, then you’re not poor.”
“Oh,” said Jonas, “what about the people who have no food, or no house?”
“They can still hope, they can still dream,” said his grandmother, “so long as they can imagine a future, they can work to make it a better one. But once you give up hope, you have nothing.”
Jonas nodded. He thought he understood.
“Thanks, Nana,” he patted her hand, “you’ve been a great help.”

I Am a Gravedigger

“I’m a gravedigger,” the man said, “not a murderer.”
He looked across the table at me with eyes blazing out of his rugged face and gripped the arms of his chair with such intensity that I thought his fingers would snap. I looked down at my notes.
“Um, Mr Wright; Mr Albert Wright, isn’t it?” I asked, “did you know that for the last few years the death rate has been on the increase in this town?”
“Well naturally,” replied Albert, “everybody’s getting older at the same rate, so it stands to reason that sooner or later people are going to start dropping off the other end of the lifeline, if you see what I mean.”
“Didn’t you think it was odd that the faster you dug graves, the faster people ‘dropped off’ as you put it?”
Albert scowled at me and leaned across the table.
“Look, if you’re saying that I killed anybody just to put them in a grave I’d dug you’re crazy. Why would I want to do that?”
The questioning had been going on for several hours now, and all that we had uncovered was circumstantial evidence. There was no doubt that more citizens had died over the last three years than in the previous ten. However, none of the deaths had appeared suspicious at the time. The strange thing was that many of them appeared to have little or no family left so it was difficult to get the full details of the cases.
I shuffled some papers in front of me and decided to try another line of questioning.
“How much do you get paid per grave, Mr Wright?”
“Two hundred dollars.”
“And do you know how much families are charged for each grave?
“Er, well, Charley handles the payments,” said Albert.
“Did you know that Charley asks five hundred dollars for each new grave?”
He shook his head.
“Rather a lot of money for a hole in the ground, don’t you think?”
“Hey mister,” Albert looked up and thumped his hand on the table, “have you any idea how hard it is to dig down six feet into the hard, packed earth? I earn every penny of that money.”
“Have you ever opened up an old grave?”
The man put his head on one side, as if considering this question.
“Well, it depends if they’re family or not. Sometimes family like to be buried next to each other so we make a hole side by side with the first grave.”
“And do you charge the same for opening up an old grave?”
“Like I said, Charley does the money.”
Albert shifted in his chair and looked around the room. The light from the window caught the top of his head and the dust and earth from his hair appeared magnified as if in a spotlight. His elbows poked through the holes in his sleeves and mud spatters dotted his trouser legs. He did not look like a rich man.
“Do you remember when the work started to be busier?” I asked.
“Yes, it was two years ago, about the time that the big discount store was bringing in their Christmas stock. I remember because Charley told me there might be extra work on the gravedigging and I told him that I had to work longer shifts moving the boxes in the store room and that maybe he should get another person to dig a few graves.”
“And what did Charley say to that?”
“He said no, that he’d wait for me.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“I suppose he meant that he’d wait until I’d finished my stacking shift before calling on me to dig.”
“I see. And when did you dig the graves?”
“Well we dug them during the day at first, but then Charley explained that it would be cooler to dig them at night so we started digging at night.”
“Didn’t you think it was odd to dig a grave at night?” I asked.
“Well no, you see I had just finished my shift stacking the shelves and Charley said it would be better to go straight to digging so that I could get all my work done in one go. I liked that because then I could go home and sleep.”
He looked as if he could do with some sleep right now.
“How many graves do you normally dig a night?”
“Three or four. It depends.”
“And didn’t you think it strange that so many people were dying in this small town?”
Albert slammed his fist down on the table again.
“Look, I already told you, I’m a gravedigger, not a murderer! I don’t get paid to think about people dying – that’s your job. I get paid to dig, and I ain’t done nothing wrong.”
He was right. He had not done anything wrong. He was just the poor old middle man, paid $200 a time to dig as many graves as he could during the night. Charley was the one who made the profits. Charley was the one who charged the grieving families for the graves, reselling the same one sometimes over and over. Charley was the one who sped up the flow of customers by poisoning the water in the hospital and the two nursing homes. Charley was the one who buried coffins full of drugs in the extra graves that he paid Albert to dig. Charley was the one who paid Albert to dig up those coffins so that a family member could be laid to rest next to the supply of cocaine – after it had been moved on, of course.
Oh, I knew all about Charley. I had been investigating him for almost three years now. There was nothing I did not know about Charley and his operations. There was only one problem.
Charley had been murdered the night before.

When I Discovered the Leg I Knew I was in for a Really Bad Day

Sometimes I get inspired by an opening line, and jump into writing a scene, only to come up blank half way through it. I wish I knew what happened next!

When I discovered the leg I knew I was in for a really bad day. I had just stepped into the back pantry to fetch a sack of rice for Uncle Larry when I tripped over something on the floor. The pantry was dark and disorganised so I did not think anything of it at first, being more concerned with not dropping the rice, but when I went back to have a look and move the object I saw it was a leg.
A human leg. A woman’s left leg, to be precise, with a stocking but no shoe.
“Uncle Larry,” I whispered, when I was back in the kitchen, “there’s a leg in the pantry.”
“I know,” he whispered back, “I put it there this morning.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the food inspector is coming today, and I can’t have a leg lying around in the middle of the restaurant.”
I could see the logic in this argument.
“Whose leg is it?” I asked, “And why do you have a leg in your restaurant?”
“It’s Joe Bolger’s. He left it here last night. He was so drunk he could hardly stand and was in no fit state to be taking his leg home.”
I forbore to inquire as to why Joe Bolger needed a leg when he had two perfectly good ones of his own and suggested to Uncle Larry that any decent food inspector would want to see in the pantry as well as the restaurant.
“Well then,” he said, “you’ll have to take the leg back to Joe.”
“Me? You want me to take a leg to Joe Bolger? I asked incredulously.
“Sure, that’s the best idea. Here, put it in this rice bag, then nobody will see it.”
Uncle Larry dumped the rice into a large, metal bowl, sending little white grains skittering around the floor. I wondered briefly if the food inspector would crunch the rice grains underfoot during his tour of the kitchen then Uncle Larry thrust the empty rice sack in my hand and pushed me out of the kitchen into the panty.
There it was, still, lying on the ground. At least it was not dripping blood, but it was a fairly unpleasant colour all the same. I pinched my nose as a precaution.
I slid the rice sack under the leg and jiggled the offending limb into the sack without touching it then slipped out the side door and headed towards my truck.
“Well hello, Sammy!”
A large hand clamped on my shoulder heralded the arrival of the Sherriff.
“Uh, Hi, Pete,” I said, shifting the sack slightly to keep it out of sight.
“What’ve you got there? A dead body?”
I could feel the sweat running down my back as I forced my face into a smile.
“Oh no, Pete, only a leg,” I replied in a hearty a voice as I could muster, although it sounded more like a squeak.
“Well, see you on Tuesday!”
Pete clapped me on the back again and turned into the restaurant. Sometimes it was good to have the Sheriff as your best friend but today was not one of them. I threw the sack into the back of the truck and roared out of the parking lot so fast I could smell the burning rubber from the tires and I swear there was a black mark on the road behind me. I slowed right down then because I did not want Pete coming after me. Friend or no, he would be obliged to pull me over if he caught me driving dangerously.
Joe’s place was not far; one of those busy complexes where you park out front and walk through miles of paths to get to the apartment, only I didn’t know which was his apartment so I figured I had better ask.
I pulled into the visitor parking and walked over to a group of women talking by a door. Some kids were playing tag in the courtyard and a couple of men were lounging against a wall, cigarettes dangling out of the sides of their mouths. I had just asked the women where Joe Bolger lived when there was a commotion behind me. A young boy came rushing round the corner, followed closely by gang of kids slightly bigger than him. He dodged behind the cars then clambered into my truck and seized the sack with the leg in it. As his pursuers advanced he twirled the sack over his head and walloped the closest assailants.
“Oi!” I shouted, “Put that down!”
The boy, momentarily distracted, looked my way and in that instant another of the pursuers grabbed the sack and took off with it.
At this point I should have just driven away and forgotten the whole thing but I felt responsible to Uncle Larry and poor old Joe, so I followed, chasing the boy with the sack. The place was like a warren, with paths and stairs all over the place and the youngsters had the advantage not only of being on familiar ground but of being much fitter than I so before long I had fallen behind them and was completely lost.
Now I was really worried. By chasing the boys I had identified myself publicly with that sack and its dreadful contents, so any minute now my old friend Pete would be turning up to arrest me. There was only one thing to do; find Joe Bolger, apologise and make sure he took on the responsibility for that severed limb.
It took three doors before somebody opened to my knock and grudgingly told me which apartment was Joe’s. I suppose by this time I must have looked a sight: panting, eyes wild from worry, shirt flapping loose. Following the directions I went two floors up and along to the end where I found a dark, grimy door with the name plate Bolger stuck on at an angle. I hurriedly adjusted my clothes then banged on the door of Joe’s apartment.
A thump and a shuffle announced the arrival of the occupant. Would he be angry, I wondered?
“I’m sorry, but your leg is gone,” I gabbled as soon as the door opened.
Standing in front of me was an old woman holding a cane. Beneath her flower print dress I could see her right leg in a thick brown stocking and slipper. The left leg was no more than a wooden peg.