The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2007 Results


Copyright © David Bentley 2007

There was something about him that attracted my attention from the start, though for a long time I couldnít spot just what it was. He seemed ordinary enough. A thin, slightly stooped frame was topped by a ferret-like face with bright, beady eyes set rather close together over a straggly moustache. There are thousands like him in any city, all over the world. Minor clerks in offices, who are destined to be so until the end of their days.

He was drinking on his own at the bar, and it was as he raised his glass to his lips that I saw what it was that made him different. His hands. They were delicate, with long, thin, supple fingers. Fingers that might hold the most priceless of objects in perfect safety. Beautiful hands, hands that belonged on a woman rather than on a man drinking a glass of light at the local in the centre of a big city like Melbourne.

"I see youíre interested in our George."

I turned towards the voice and saw a powerfully built man of about forty with the bearing of an ex-army officer, sitting in a nearby corner seat. He regarded me quizzically from beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows as he put a match to his pipe.

I began to apologise for my rudeness in staring at his friend, but he waved my apologies aside.

"Donít worry about it. Heís an interesting chap, is our George. In fact thereís a darned good story there if only someone would write it down."

Normally I would have retired from the scene as swiftly as possible at this point, for there is nothing I hate more than being told, 'Thereís a good story there.' Writers soon learn that such beginnings seldom, if ever, fulfil their promise.

However, this time I didnít leave, though for the life of me I couldnít tell you why. Perhaps it was the interest that the man had already aroused in me. Anyway, I stayed, bought drinks for us both, and when we were settled down in his corner my would-be storyteller took a long pull at his drink, gave an appreciative sigh, and began.

"George," he said, "was a misfit, and like many misfits, he turned to crime. Trouble was, he wasnít a very good criminal. In fact he was a very bad one. Whatever he tried he bungled, and he was always caught. Well, almost always, anyway. He served several terms of imprisonment, vowing each time ĎNever againí, and let it be said in all fairness that he never did do the same thing again. He just tried something else. The result was always the same, though. Up before the magistrate, and a few more months inside.

"Now I come to think of it he did have one minor success. Those delicate fingers of his might have been made for the job of safe breaking, and if one of the masterminds had got hold of him thereís no telling what might have happened. Anyway, he got away with a cool five thousand in notes, not bad for a first attempt. He didnít try to splash it about. He had more sense than that. He just went quietly about his usual ways, spending a few here and a few there. Poor old George. It never occurred to him that the numbers might be known.

"It was during the stretch that he did for that job," my new friend went on, "that his idea came to him. It was a little longer than his usual stint, so he had plenty of time for meditation and he really thought it through carefully. Not that it was complicated. Far from it, for the basic idea was simplicity itself. It was the snags, you see. This time he wanted to be really certain there werenít any.

"By the time he came out he was pretty sure he was on to something, something really good, though in a small way, for George wasnít an ambitious man. He didnít want to be king of the underworld, or even the leader of a gang. He just wanted to be allowed to live in his own quiet fashion, unmolested by anyone, police or public.

"At first hearing his idea sounded too simple to be true, ridiculously simple, even. But that was the beauty of it. There was nothing to go wrong. He was going to tour the big city stores, especially the sections where the bulky but expensive goods are sold, such as the sports departments, looking for the person who just canít wait for it to be delivered. Thereís always one about the place who tucks it under his arm and marches off. Sooner or later, usually sooner, he gets tired, regrets his hasty action, and puts it down for a rest. Well, havenít you ever done it? Of course you have, and so had George. You put the toe of your shoe against it so that you know if someone moves it without having to keep a constant watch on it. George would give him a swift but hard kick on the shin, pick up the goods and walk off.

"As I said, it sounds too stupid to work, doesnít it? But is it? Have you ever been kicked hard on the shin by someone who really meant it? About all you can do after the first agonised howl is to clutch your leg as you sink to the floor in agony. The inevitable crowd collects, and before the explanations are finished George is two blocks away, climbing into his rather battered old Holden. Neat, effective, and above all, simple.

"He even had the disposal side of the business organised, and it didnít make use of the traditional fence, either. This had the double advantage that he was the only one who need know that the goods were stolen, and there was no one else to share the profits with. He would simply go out to the suburbs, find a local sports dealer, and explain that he had just moved to the district and that his doctor had forbidden him to play. ďJust as I was beginning to get interested in the game, too. Such a pity. I donít suppose they would be worth very much, being second hand, though they have been used only once.Ē George realised that he would have to be careful, though. It wouldnít do, for instance, to go to the same place twice.

"He didnít try it straight away when he came out, but spied out the land a bit first, going round the stores, Sandridgeís, Anderson and Freebodyís, Hallamís and the like, and it was all just as he had supposed. Every day people took their goods with them, found them getting heavier and heavier, and put them down for a rest. It was a dead cert.

"He decided that Saturday would be the best day to begin, as there would be more people to create confusion for his getaway. He picked his man carefully. A bowls player choosing a new set of woods, which he wanted to show off to his pals at the club the next day. George detested show-offs, and felt that he deserved to lose them. The fellow had a slight limp, and George smiled to himself as he thought of the limp that he was going to have in a few minutes.

"All went according to plan. The man went down to the first floor, found his arm tired, and stood beside the escalator for a rest, parcel by his foot. George would administer the blow, pick up the parcel, and vanish down the escalator before anyone knew what was happening. He had thought of everything. Even his shoes were of the steel toecapped variety worn by factory workers. After all, heíd look pretty stupid if he hurt his own toe, and couldnít make his getaway.

"This was his big moment, and he savoured it to the full. This time he would not fail. He moved in for the kill.

"The expressions on Georgeís face when he administered that kick were a sight to be remembered for many years. First the grim expression of the hunter, and then the change as he realised that his beloved plan had somehow, unbelievably, gone wrong. Finally the agony as he found his arm caught in a grip of steel and pinned behind his back, his victim, now very much the master, calling for the manager and the police. It must have been a dreadful shock when the face in front of him, instead of twisting in agony, suddenly turned grim, and he felt that iron grip on his arm, nearly wrenching it out of its socket.

"He spent hours in his cell before the trial, going over the whole scene in his mind again and again, but try as he might he couldnít fathom out where heíd gone wrong. It just didnít make sense. It wasnít until his intended victim was in the witness box at the trial that he realised he had picked the one man on whom his attack couldnít work. After all, there canít be many bowls players with an artificial leg."

My storyteller paused a moment for a little more refreshment before continuing. "Anyway, whilst George was in prison the fellow visited him, and as sometimes happens in these cases, they struck up quite a friendship. It turned out that his new friend owned and ran a small factory, and to cut a long story short, he invited George to come and see him there when he got out.

"Somewhat belatedly, George had made up his mind that a life of crime was not for him. Trouble was, jobs werenít all that easy to come by when you had a record and no qualifications, so he decided to take up his friendís offer to go and see him at his factory. A quick phone call to check that it was convenient, and he was on his way.

"He was made very welcome, and found himself absolutely fascinated by all that went on, spending five minutes or more just watching one small operation before moving on to the next. And each time he would ask questions, lots of questions.

"When he had finished his tour of the factory and seen all there was to see he was invited to try it for himself, and it soon became obvious that those long, supple fingers of his could make and handle some of the most delicate parts with an ease that few could match.

"Well, once his friend saw how good he was, he offered him a job on the spot. George, of course, was over the moon. Thought all his Christmases had come at once, and in a way I suppose they had. Anyway, George had found his niche at last, and he was a misfit no longer. Five years ago, that was, and he still works there today. Damned good at it he is, too, and the customers think the world of him."

My curiosity aroused, I asked what it was that George made so well.

My storyteller chuckled. "Artificial limbs! Arms and legs! And every one of them made to the needs of the individual patient, though George prefers to call them his clients."

We both laughed as my companion finished the remains of his drink, refused my offer of another, and got up to leave. As he did so my stick, which I had thoughtlessly left sticking out, gave him a nasty crack across the shin. I apologised for my carelessness, but he assured me with a smile that he was quite all right, and walked on. I couldnít help noticing, however, that although he did have a slight limp, he showed no signs of pain. No signs at all.