Fiction

Two begging stories

The mountain

 

When he made his first billion, Samir bought the top half of the mountain. Once his grandparents had lived at its foot but now he had a view to the sea and the mountains beyond.

His first point of business was the road. Bulldozers, excavators, trucks and workers battled a road to the top. He liked the appearance of dust but not how it clung to his clothes. They layered the gravel and then sprayed the asphalt. He thought, Now I can build my house.

He flew in an architect, he flew in consultants recommended by his friends. The design would be Mediterranean: white walls, orange tiles, a palace equal to his life.

The first night he spent in his palace, he lit up every light. He imagined people below looking up. Yes, the mountain has a king at its top. His sole regret was he could not be in two places at once: to see the mountain being lit for the first time while being the one who flicked the switch. Tomorrow he’d ask and his people could give him a detailed report.

He thought to live at the top.

He thought his apartment in the city could be sold.

He had not yet walked through his home when his guard called him. “There is a line of beggars at the door.”

It is not enough to own the mountain and the road to its top. They also need to be fenced off.

He called the builders. “Tomorrow, you will build me a fence.”

The fence took them 60 days. At each gate there were guards. One day when Samir was being driven home, he looked up into the night. There is my home. Who knew a mountain could be owned? He noticed then the beggars lining both sides of the public road. Soon he’d pass his gate and these people would be left behind.

He wondered about poverty in the world, people living on the street with their hands held out.

Samir considered his options. He could build another fence. He could sit nightly in his palace with the lights turned off. A helicopter could drop him off so the sight of the beggars would not greet him every day.

He remembered his apartment in the city. He could go and come as he pleased.

What could he do with half a mountain in a country where he was the richest man? He divided up the land and sold it off. The buyers built houses that were smaller replicas of his own. The number of cars going and coming made the turns dangerous so the beggars abandoned the road for the city again.

He slept in the apartment and dreamt of the mountain again.

Tomorrow, he would drive to the top. He would enjoy the view, he would study the land he still owned. Leave these thoughts for tomorrow.

So he slept, hoping for solitude in the valley and solitude at the top…

 

The beggar

 

Years ago there appeared at the foot of the building a begging man. His trousers were grey and he seemed to be missing a leg. These beggars were good at appearing to suffer a misfortune. His hand was out and his eyes were turned blind to the sky.

In the morning and evening I’d see him on the way to work. Others gave him money but I stepped around him, ignoring his false eyes. Each day there was a plea. “Sir, I need some change.”

Just as this building has its beggar, so do others in the area. It is as if they worked in agreement, deciding who had each building so they did not compete for the same coins from the same few. One woman sat with her child, each holding out a hand. The child’s clothes were dirty and she had always tears in her eyes. There was a pair who twitched as if possessed, spitting at people’s legs as they went past. If I saw them, I always crossed the street.

The truth is we are guaranteed death, taxes and beggars in the street. I am grateful for the guard at the door and how only a resident is allowed in. Buildings without a guard end up with families moving in to live beneath their stairs. Once they are in the building, it is impossible to be rid of them.

The one outside our door was there for either six or eight years. On this point, everyone in the building disagrees. The guard says it was longer, closer to 10. Our beggar treated his rag on the ground much like a job. He spent the entire day there, sheltered by a balcony above his head. If it is six years or even 10, I have seen him thousands of times, more than the members of my family.

We speak of him now because he is gone. Is he dead or has he moved on? They talk about a search or raising money. For what, who knows, but in any case we don’t know his name. This talk goes through the building but we can’t even agree when he disappeared. Plans are made, plans are thrown out. But then we discover a new beggar has moved in. He has crutches and broken feet stretched out before him. He cannot walk, his sign says, and plans are made because here is one who needs our help . He will be given money, he will be cared for, he will be made to stand.

That night, everyone returns to their apartment and the guard locks out the world outside. The next morning, I study the new one. Already the regulars are in their place.

I nod at him but his eyes never lift to my face. I think of the coins in my pocket and then I continue on my way. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Two begging stories".

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Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. Her first book of short stories, The House of Youssef, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Award and The Stella Prize.