This was originally published as a two-part story in 2016. I have combined both parts into one long story of 4,068 words. This is for those who did not follow me at the time, or anyone who didn’t read it then.
The date on the newspaper was the 22nd of September. Geraldine was sixteen today, and Barry had missed another birthday. She had been thirteen the last time he had seen her, and now he didn’t even know where she lived.
Barry stretched out his legs, and gave Molly a stroke. She wagged her tail and licked his hand, settling back down across his thighs. It wasn’t too cold that night, so he hadn’t used the sleeping bag. Three layers of stout cardboard were comfortable enough for now, and the rolled up bag was nice to prop himself up on, wedged against the corner of the shop doorway. People were coming and going, heading in and out of Mr Nisha’s all-night shop next door. This was one of Barry’s favourite spots, and he always tried to get there early, just after the travel agent closed. Their doorway was just big enough for shelter, but not too deep so that nobody noticed you. He adjusted the small box, making sure that the writing on it could be seen from the street. ‘PLEASE HELP’ were the only words on it. Barry liked to leave it at that. He wasn’t one of those who pestered everyone walking past, constantly repeating “Spare some change”, like a mantra. The residents of London were used to rough sleepers and beggars by now, so Barry tried to be different. He didn’t sit near a cash dispenser, or by the entrance to a station. He would set up with Molly next to Mr Nisha’s shop, out of the way and unnoticed by anyone except the shop’s customers.
A few years earlier, it had all been so different. Barry Matthews had been a man of substance, a trader in The City, known for his skill at buying stocks and shares. He had an attractive wife, Mandy, and his darling daughter, Geri. They lived in a luxurious five-bedroom house in one of the best parts of north Essex. Mandy drove to the gym in a Range Rover, and Geri had her own pony, kept at nearby stables. There was the apartment in the south of France, and a weekend lodge in Scotland. Barry worked hard, commuting into London by train before seven in the morning, and rarely getting home at night until nine. They only had the best, and only ate the best. He didn’t have to deny anything to the two women in his life. Sure, he lived on the edge, but then so did everyone else. Credit cards with huge outstanding balances, loans to cover other loans, and household bills that had to be seen to be believed. Then there was the cleaner, the gardener, the handyman, not to mention running two luxury cars. Still, Barry used to think, I earn it and I spend it. That’s life.
Life caught up with Barry one late summer morning. Arriving at work as usual, he saw Darren Healey standing outside, smoking a cigarette. He looked ill. “What’s up, Dazza?” Barry asked in a chirpy tone.
“You’ll find out mate. It’s all gone tits-up in there.” As he replied, Darren looked as if he was going to cry. Barry walked forward, but the younger man waved him away, turning to face the wall. Taking the lift to the company floor, Barry emerged into something very different from the usual office atmosphere. Some of the women were crying, and groups of men stood in corners, talking quietly. The screens were all blank, no telephones were flashing, and nobody was doing any work. He walked over to the desk of his section boss. “What’s going on, Alan?” He asked the tall man sitting there. “Gone bust, Barry mate. It’s all over. We’ve been closed down by head office, and even New York has gone west.” He pointed at some strangers by the main doors. “They have gone as far as to bring in security, to see us off the premises. Get anything personal you wouldn’t want to leave behind, before they chuck you out.”
On the train home, Barry was in a trance. A black plastic bin-bag rested on his knees, containing the few possessions he kept at work. Gym kit, a spare shirt, some toiletries, and a phone charger. There was a professionally-taken photo of Mandy in a silver frame, and another of Geri, sitting proudly on her pony. The few minutes after his short chat with Alan kept replaying in his mind. He had to hand in his key-card, lift pass, and I.D. badge. They took his work phone, his tablet computer, and his contact book. He was handed the rubbish sack to carry out his belongings, and escorted from the building like some sort of criminal. Darren Healey was no longer to be seen. He had gone.
Mandy took the news badly, as he expected she would. She was sure that he would get another job soon, but he reminded her that hundreds of people had lost their jobs in the markets, and Essex wide-boys like him were no longer flavour of the month. They were taking on all the Tristrams and Julians from the posh schools these days. Things couldn’t have been much worse. With no salary or commissions that month, he would be unable to meet any payments. He had to have four grand, before they even bought a pint of milk. His current account was almost three hundred overdrawn, and all four cards were at their limit. All they had was the fifteen quid in his wallet, and a couple of hundred that Mandy kept as folding money. His world had ended in a single morning, and he couldn’t see any way forward.
Very soon, everything got a lot worse. They managed to borrow enough for the month from Mandy’s dad, but everything had to go. When he told Geri that he would have to sell her pony, she told him she hated him, and stayed in her room for three days. Mandy wasn’t a fighter. She had stopped work as soon as they married, and had no intention of looking for a job now. With both cars returned to the leasing company, they had to run around in a ten year old Corsa, borrowed from a cousin. Barry looked for work for a while, but his connection to the failed firm was poison. No point trying to get money from the unemployment office either, that wouldn’t cover the dry cleaning bill, and he couldn’t stand the indignity. It was obvious the house would have to go. They had bought it at the peak time for prices, and it was worth less than what they owed on it. Barry seriously thought about topping himself, but didn’t want to leave Mandy and Geri in the lurch.
Mandy was less concerned about leaving him to deal with it all though. She packed her stuff, and her and Geri went off to stay with her parents in Suffolk. They couldn’t even afford a solicitor, so had no option but to let the mortgage lender take over the property, signing away everything. Barry found himself sleeping on an old friend’s couch, feeling like he was in the way. He couldn’t even offer to pay him anything, so knew it wouldn’t last too long. Mandy stopped taking his calls. Her dad said that her and Geri were too upset to talk to him, and that he should call back when he had sorted out his life. Nobody seemed to understand that none of it was down to him. Three months later, Barry found himself on the street, his worldly goods contained in four plastic carrier bags. He sold his swish mobile phone to a black guy outside a tube station. He asked for a hundred and twenty quid, but settled on eighty. With that money, he bought a cheap sleeping bag and rucksack, a large parka coat, and some boots. That night, he watched the others as they found places to sleep, got free soup from charity vans, and unwanted food thrown away by shops. He began to learn by observation, keeping himself to himself in this dangerous new world.
Three years later, and he was a veteran of the streets. He had avoided alcohol, which caused most of the others so many problems. He had adopted Molly the Staffy after her owner, Mike the Sailor, had been taken away by ambulance one night, suffering from fits. Mike never came back, so Barry hung on to the old girl. Having a nice dog was good. Not just the company, it brought in more money. People gave you something, and would say, “Get the dog some food, don’t spend it on drink.” Later that night, a young couple approached him on their way into the shop. The girl bent down and stroked Molly, who licked her hand. When they came out of the shop minutes later, the man leaned down to Barry, offering him a slip of paper. “Take this mate, you never know, it might bring you luck.” He said it with a smile, seemed like a nice bloke. It was a Lucky Dip Lottery ticket for that evening’s draw, which had cost two pounds. Barry would sooner have had the cash, but he thanked the man anyway, and put the paper into the zipped front pocket of his coat.
The next morning he counted his change, and went into the shop to buy some water, and a pouch of food for Molly. Mr Nisha was there, smiling as always. “Good morning Sir Barry” he said in his loud voice. As he was leaving with his purchases, Barry suddenly remembered. He took the ticket from his pocket, and asked Mr Nisha to check it. He checked it once, then again, and a third time to be sure. “Sir Barry, it is a winner, I’m sure. It says here that you have to telephone immediately.” Mr Nisha let Barry stand at the side of the counter, to use the shop’s phone. After pressing some buttons, a young lady came on the line. She asked for the numbers again, and for the code number on the back. She asked where he had bought the ticket, then asked him to hold the line. After a short delay, she came back. “I am pleased to tell you that you have a winning ticket sir.” Her voice was cheery. “If you will give me your address, we will send one of our representatives down to see you, before lunchtime.” Barry couldn’t think what to say, so he gave the address of the shop, and said that he would wait there. “How much have I won?” He finally thought to ask. The girl was obviously reading from a script. “That will be discussed later sir, but I am happy to advise you that it is a substantial amount.”
Four hours later, a large black people carrier turned up. Barry’s life was about to change once again.
The people from the Lottery company checked that Barry had the ticket, which they inspected carefully. They went inside, and Mr Nisha confirmed that he had sold it. They seemed happy enough. One of them was on the ‘phone to the company, but Barry couldn’t hear what was being said. A chunky woman introduced herself as Valerie. “Call me Val.” She insisted. She told him that she was a volunteer, a previous winner who helped to guide the lucky ones through the process. “You don’t mind helping out with some publicity, do you Mr Matthews?” He shrugged in reply. “Call me Barry if you like.” After a short debate about Molly the dog being allowed in the car, Barry climbed in the back next to Val, with Molly sitting on the floor. He had told them, “Either the dog comes, or I don’t go. You can just send the money instead.”
As they drove off, the youngest one stayed behind. He said he had to get to the office, but as the car turned into the main street, he was on his mobile. “Hi, it’s Alex.” He was excited, and could hardly control the volume of his voice. “This one’s a peach. A homeless man in a shop doorway with his dog, and he wins the jackpot. It’s a genuine rags to riches story, you couldn’t make it up.”
Barry stared out of the tinted window as the car headed south over Waterloo Bridge. Val was going through what was to happen next. “You will be taken to a hotel, and meet the representatives from the organisers. They will put you up there, make sure that you get something to eat, and run through what you should be thinking about. Tomorrow, there will be a short press conference, and no doubt the TV cameras will want to be there too. You will be famous, Barry. Is that OK?” At the Elephant and Castle roundabout, the car headed south, in the direction of Kent. He suddenly realised he had to reply. “Fine by me.” About an hour later, they arrived at a smart country house hotel in the Kent countryside. Val hadn’t stopped talking, but in all honesty, Barry had to admit that he hadn’t really paid much attention to her prattling. She had spoken mostly about her own experience, and although it was too harsh to say out loud, he couldn’t really care less about her.
Val escorted him to a lovely room. “Perhaps you would like to change before the meeting.” She suggested. “Into what?” Barry replied. “This is it.” Val looked uneasy. “Well, maybe a bath, and a rest before the meeting then. Is there anything you need at the moment?” “A bowl please, so I can give Molly some water.” He pointed at the panting dog, before dropping onto the huge soft bed. He had forgotten just how soft a bed was. It was as if he had never slept in one before. Val went off to consult with the officials. “Don’t let him change, whatever you do.” She was told. “Let him freshen up, get that smell off him. He can have dinner in the room, and breakfast too for that matter. But we want him looking just like that, when the press guys come tomorrow.” Once they had brought the water bowl, Barry stripped off and ran a hot bath, using the foam and oils supplied by the hotel. He sat in that bath for a long time, using the fluffy dressing gown provided when he was out and dry. A knock on his door was followed by a waiter, with menus for food and wine. Barry could choose what to have for lunch, and it would be served in his room. He chose a steak, and ordered some chicken for Molly, who was curled up on an expensive-looking rug near the windows.
After lunch, the telephone rang. It was Val, asking him to be kind enough to meet them in the Hambledon Suite, on the ground floor. Barry rummaged through his rucksack, and found some reasonably clean socks and underwear, as well as a creased but washed shirt. Entering the conference suite, he felt decidedly under-dressed, but not too bothered about it. Val was there, with three serious-looking men. They stood up as he came in, and shook his hand in turn. They explained their roles. One was a legal adviser, another dealt with financial matters, and the third was a regional manager. “You are going to be a very wealthy man, Mr Matthews, and we regard it as our responsibility to give you the best advice on how to manage your winnings.” That was said by the manager, as the others nodded. Barry felt bold enough to ask the burning question. “Exactly how much are we talking about?” The manager smiled. “You had the only ticket to match all the winning numbers. This is the amount, I am sure you will be pleased.” As he spoke, he slid a piece of paper across the desk. It contained just one line of type, a long row of numbers. £16,683,488.42p. Barry read it twice. Over sixteen and a half million pounds. He had hoped that it might have been a couple of hundred grand, but he hadn’t expected this.
“I am sure that you will agree, Mr Matthews, a life-changing sum of money.” This from the financial expert, an older man with something of the Victorian about him.
Much of what went on after that seemed to Barry to be happening at fast-forward. He signed some papers, and agreed once again to tomorrow’s press conference. They asked for bank details, and he could only give them details of an old savings account. All the others had been closed, when he had gone bust. He was told that his bill would be covered until the following afternoon, and after that, he would be responsible. They asked him to tell Val what he wanted to say to the press, and they would check it before he spoke. He shook their hands once more, and went back to his room. Someone from the company would be back the next morning, and Val would stick around, if he wanted to talk. But he didn’t want to talk, he wanted to sleep. To sleep in that soft bed. Molly was pleased to see him when he got back, then scooted back to her comfy rug. He undressed, and slipped into the clean bedding.
The photo shoot next morning was a real set-up. Barry was dressed in his old coat and battered boots, with Molly on her washing-line lead next to him. He held up a huge fake cheque bearing the amount he had won, and shook a champagne bottle until it fizzed over everyone. He decided not to say much, just confirmed that he had been living on the streets, and agreed that the lottery would change his life. Val handed out a press release with his real name and age, as well as a romanticised version of how this street tramp had found his way back into society courtesy of a lottery ticket. By 11 am, it was all over. They left him with contact numbers for the advisers, telling him to be in touch when he had an address, or if he needed help. Barry was approached by the hotel manager, who offered to let him keep the room for now, at a preferred rate.
One lesson soon learned was that if you have enough money, people who want it will come to you. Within two days, a young man arrived from the bank where he held the savings account. He wanted to discuss investments of course, but he also arranged for Barry’s account to be reinstated, as well as the issue of bank cards and credit cards, which arrived by courier the following day. He was contacted by local tailors offering bespoke clothing services, and estate agents left messages all day, suggesting that they pick him up and show him around some very desirable properties in the area. The hotel began to receive so many calls asking for Mr Matthews, that he told them to say he had checked out, and they didn’t know where he had gone. Sacks of mail arrived too. Thousands of letters sent by people pleading for investment in wonderful inventions, asking for money to pay for expensive life-saving operations, and a hundred and one other sob stories. Many claimed to know him, and some even threatened exposure of made-up crimes, or to reveal secrets from his past if he refused to send money. Barry read a few, but soon got bored with them. He asked the hotel to get rid of them, and ordered a taxi to take him to Maidstone, the nearest large town. He asked the taxi-driver to wait for him, and told him to expect a big tip. The driver knew his story. He waited.
He left Molly in a dog-grooming parlour as he went around the busy centre. After a good haircut and shave in a trendy barber’s, he stopped off in some smart shops, buying new clothes and shoes, as well as a sharp suit. When the staff asked what they should do with the clothes he had been wearing, he told them to throw them away. He also bought a leather holdall to put everything in, and a very expensive watch. In a mobile phone shop, he paid cash for a sim-only phone, and topped it up with five hundred pounds. That should last a while, he thought. His last stop was at the office of one of the estate agents who had contacted him. With minimal fuss, he was able to rent an isolated house about ten miles away. He was assured that it was furnished tastefully, completely equipped for all his needs, and he need do nothing more than move in. He paid the six months in advance, and was handed the keys. The agent gave him the contact numbers necessary for the utility companies, and advised that he contact them that day. Barry collected Molly, who had clipped nails, a very clean coat, and looked years younger. He walked back to the spot where the taxi had dropped him off, and the smiling driver was there waiting.
After three weeks in the house, Barry had set it up well. Everything could be done on the telephone or online. You didn’t need to go out, unless you wanted to. He had soon arranged the best available Internet service, and purchased a state of the art laptop. He bought a huge TV for the bedroom, and subscribed to all the latest satellite services. Food was ordered in, as well as casual clothes, some nice bedding, and pretty much anything else he needed. Molly could wander around in the large garden. She didn’t need long walks at her age. He checked the post every day. So far, nobody had found out where he was. The letters had stopped, and he was very much yesterday’s news. Someone else would soon win another jackpot, and he could slip away into obscurity.
After six weeks had passed, he telephoned Mandy’s parents. The lady who answered told him that she had lived there for almost two years. The man who lived there before had died, and his wife had gone to live with her daughter in South Africa. She had an address somewhere, if he wanted it. Barry declined the address, and thanked her for her time. He sat and thought about the news. South Africa? What the hell were Mandy and Geri doing there? He considered the possibility of hiring a detective agency to track them down, but wondered what he would say if he found them. Perhaps his new-found wealth would lure them back to him, but he was no longer sure that was really what he wanted. He called the agent who managed the house. He wanted to rent it long-term, he told the man. A payment arrangement would be put in place, to include someone to check on the house from time to time, keep it maintained, and sort out the garden. “I am going away for a while, and I will not be able to be contacted.” Barry informed him.
The next afternoon, Barry dressed in a thick hooded sweatshirt and jogging trousers. He put on some black trainers, and unwrapped the new heavy coat from the box it had arrived in. Taking off the designer watch, he placed it in a bedside drawer, next to the switched-off mobile phone. He took some cash from the table, and put the notes into a pocket of the coat. The taxi arrived at four as arranged, and he and Molly were on the train to London within the hour.
He knew where to get the best dry cardboard, and it was still there. Three large sheets would be enough, and all he could carry anyway. Settling down in the doorway next to Mr Nisha’s shop, Molly jumped into his lap, and he stroked her head.
Barry smiled at his faithful dog as he said, “Home at last, Moll.”