Sunday, 1 May 2016

Tonga Discovers

© Denis Fitzpatrick, 2015

‘“The beggar is a man, forced by fate to remind us of Christ; he is a brother to Christ; he is the bell of the Lord and he rings in life in order to rouse our conscience, to arouse the satiety of the flesh of man. He stands by the window and sings out: ‘For the love of Christ!’ and by his singing he reminds us of Christ, of His holy commandment to help one’s neighbour. But men have so arranged their life that it is impossible for them to act according to the teachings of Christ . . . And now we have arranged to lock up these beggars in separate houses [homeless shelters, sheltered workshops, etc.] that they should not walk around on the streets and should not arouse our conscience.’” Maxim Gorky, The Man Who was Afraid, or, Foma Gordeyef

Tonga Akauola, recently turned twenty-seven years of age, was now considering if his absolutely atrocious luck over the past several years had just begun to turn. The cause of this conjecture was a free plate full of food, a large chicken Maryland with plenty of vegetables. Tonga was a resident at Forest House, a homeless shelter for men in inner city Sydney, and he had been almost on the very verge of starvation for over the past six years. The hostel charged two dollars for a hot dinner, although a breakfast of cereal and a hot lunch were free. Tonga though never had these two dollars because he refused to beg. He also refused unemployment welfare, to do so being considered by him as unethical, having wilfully chosen homelessness because he saw most of modern society as so very shallow and so very meaningless. And those few pockets of meaningful societies were too far away for someone with not the slightest coin.
     This tempting plate was pointing to other possibilities though, beckoning him with indistinct possibilities of fulfilment. Tonga had snuck into the kitchen in the small hours of the morning, unable to sleep, having tested the kitchen door on the vague off-chance that it was open. Which indeed it was. He studied the plate for a few minutes more, listening for the staff to spoil his boon, whilst also wondering if there was indeed a God, Whom was now taking Pity on him. When it appeared his luck was still holding he took a knife and fork and ravenously ate the entire meal. He felt wonderful afterwards.
     This bliss, though, ended suddenly, upon hearing someone test the kitchen door, and then locking it when it was discovered to be open. Thank God, thought Tonga, he hadn’t been discovered too. He was unsure of the consequences of being discovered in his theft, but his tenuous life needed no further burden.
     Tonga had always been very smart and so quickly decided that his only hope of escaping the kitchen, with bars over all of the windows, was to hide himself in the pantry until morning, and when the staff opened the kitchen to make a dash for it. He was trusting to his improving luck to escape unmolested.
     And successfully escape he did, giving him a completely new conviction that there was indeed a God and that He was Looking out for him. He resolved to attend Mass tomorrow, the first Sunday after Christmas Day, 2015. Tonga returned to his bed, now feeling drowsy after guiltily helping himself to some more of the good things in the shelter’s kitchen, mentally chanting the ‘Our Father’ until he drifted off to a brief sleep before the guests were woken by the staff. His dreams were good during that brief interval.

*

Tonga was awoken the next morning by the loud, querulous voice of an old man talking with the person in the bed next to him.
     ‘Some bastard stole old Frederick’s dinner.’
     ‘You mean the painter,’ replied Tonga’s neighbour.
     ‘There’s only one Frederick here, mate.’
     ‘How was it stolen?’
     ‘The prick somehow got into the kitchen. And Frederick had paid for the meal.’
     ‘Why wasn’t he at dinner? I wouldn’t mind the staff putting away a meal for me when I’m too wasted to eat.’
     ‘He’d been called away to do a $300 commission. The guy who ordered the painting was helping out a friend of a friend of a friend, or something like that. This friend, or whatever, was desperate for something special for him and his missus’ fortieth wedding anniversary.’
     ‘Did Frederick get his money back?’
     ‘Yeah, but he was furious when he had no reward to come back to early this morning, after working all night. The staff are furious too.’
     ‘Bloody right. The thief’s obviously a real bloody pig.’
     ‘You said it, mate.’
     Tonga felt terrible all that day, aghast at the horror of making the suffering of old, homeless, Fredrick even worse, and could not attend Mass as he had resolved. He felt far too sinful for that. Tonga had honestly thought that the meal was just extra food, a meal left over. But there was nothing he could do to make amends, what with having no money whatsoever. He would have liked to anonymously pay for all the men’s dinner one evening soon but that was simply impossible. Unless of course he applied for unemployment welfare, despite it being unethical. He could always cancel it once he had made his act of contrition. Or he could go a-begging, which was less unethical, simply asking his fellow citizens for some humane help. He could always beg up enough solely to feed the men at Forest House for one night.
     By the next morning he awoke with his decision having been made: he would beg the money, castigating himself as a result for his grave sin. Over breakfast that morning he planned out how much money he would need and the rate at which to get it. He would also have to open a bank account, his previous one being closed through inactivity. He left the dining room after breakfast with purpose, envisioning the joy he was about to bring.

*

This sense of purpose and imminent joy must have shown clearly in his face for after only two weeks he had scrounged up a few hundred dollars from the strangers on the street he approached for money, quite sufficient to make amends, he thought. He used none of the monies for himself and went to bed each night turning the day’s bank deposit slip over and over in his hands, almost being able to see the festive atmosphere that was approaching. He made sure though to swallow the slip just before drifting off to sleep in case one of his neighbours found it and bashed him for the PIN number to his hundreds. One can never be too careful.
     On the day that his bank balance reached $450.00 Tonga seriously began to rethink his life. Maybe he should keep the money for himself and live like a king from now on, albeit a king without a castle? Maybe he should use the cash to return to shelter, to return to the society that had been generous and compassionate with him? He could even get a job working for the Man and make even more money, naturally donating ten percent of his wages to charity. It was most certainly tempting.
     Studying the printout slip for his $450.00 bank balance that night in bed, he decided to look after himself with it, to get out of this homeless shelter where he could only get a bed when he was granted one on credit. Sure this was most of the time, like with almost all of the other ‘guests’, but his own place would seem to be Paradise after over six years, approaching seven years, of unmitigated poverty. But what really decided him was the fact that he would have his own bathroom and toilet if he found his own place. Veritable luxury! He fell asleep that night, after swallowing the bank balance printout slip, and entered his new home in dreams.

*

Being out of the housing market for so long, and never really paying attention to the horrible news on TV or radio, Tonga was very surprised that Sydney had a less than one percent vacancy rate. His $450.00 was good enough for only one week’s rent, never mind the bond, with a little left over for food. He would obviously need a job, now. Thus, having decided to work for the Man, he applied for unemployment welfare and received his first payment in the late afternoon of the same day. But he was still far short of the bond money.
     So over the next four weeks he again approached his fellow citizens for help, by the end of which time he had his own home, a bedsitter, for $250.00 per week, albeit an hour and a half from Sydney by train. He paid half of his bond, the federal welfare agency of Aus paying the other half, but he would have to rely on charity for the first few weeks in order to pay his rent on time, whilst also looking for a steady job. Food he planned to obtain at the homeless shelter each morning and afternoon. His welfare would buy him a modest dinner each evening.
     Getting the job was much harder than getting the flat, after being out of the workforce for so long with no reasonable reason (he was too honest to lie and say that he had been overseas, or to come up with some other dishonest excuse), but when he did get a factory-hand job he contemplated a course of study throughout his working day, something noble, something to give back to generous Sydney, the Sydney that had easily shown him its bright side. He eventually decided on doing some type of business studies, with the view to getting into banking. He felt that he would be a good banker, compassionate and caring, only interested in helping the clients that came to him rather than the bank, but whilst also appeasing the bank’s lending policies. Who knows, maybe he could set up a small bank of his own, like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, dedicated to small loans largely for the poor, but unlike the Grameen Bank he would charge no interest but ask to be repaid with only the principal and some relevant labour instead. It was worth looking into.

~~~

If you have been enjoying Fitzpatrick's stories here you may also enjoy his short story collections, and other books, available online as both Kindle books and paperbacks (go to http://amzn.to/1NfodtN). Other ebook and paperback options are available at  http://bit.ly/1UsyvKD

     

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