by: Adam William Inglis
A speculative work of fiction that presents a theory about how each person on Earth has a maximum level of wealth they can attain before it destroys them…
I‘m grateful for the rainless night as I slip out of my tattered shoes and threadbare socks to flex my toes in the morning sun. My bunkmate, who I’m quite sure introduced himself as Jerr, is still asleep on his half of the steel bench, furthest from the overflowing trash bin. He said this would be the case as I had to pay my dies since I was new to the “outside,” and Euston Station was “his place.” For all his initial bluster, Jerr seemed happy with my presence, and we’d found some harmony in each other’s company.
Rubbing my beard, I ambled towards Euston Station’s entrance to retrieve two copies of The Metro, the free paper offered to commuters all over London. As I made my return, the exhaust fan for the building’s industrial air conditioner caught me, and I stood for a moment enjoying the steady blast of hot air, lifting the folds of my coat like a pigeon airing its feathers.
According to the newspaper, it’s Wednesday. England lost The Ashes, some millionaire I’ve never heard of was found dead in the back room of a Soho club, and the Stock Market still exists. The stories mean nothing to me, not like they used to, but the paper is useful if I can’t find my way to an available toilet.
I return to our bench just as the rush hour crowds begin piling into the station, creating a bottleneck as the horde reach the top of an escalator. When did humans become so routine-based and officious? I’m grateful to no longer be a part of that race. Instead, I can sit in the sunshine with Jerr, as thousands pass us by, as though we didn’t exist.
Take this guy, for example, with the sharp suit, probably Savile Row. Excellent cut for his slim, yet square-shouldered build. Side parted, combed through hair, brown for the most part, but tufts of grey where his glasses rest. I see he remembered to respect this fine city by carrying an umbrella and a bottle of water. The weather could, after all, go either way without a moment’s notice. The look of determination and his purposeful walk makes me think he’s British. Either that or he’s lived here long enough to acclimatise.
“Woss his number, Bert?”
Jerr’s voice surprised me, but his weathered, pockmarked face is filled with interest as he settled beside me to watch the crowd. His breath has a not-so-subtle hint of fermented apples. Diamond White Cider if I wasn’t mistaken.
“His number?” I thought about it for a moment. “You tell me, Jerr. What do you think his number is?” I turned to face him, smiling in encouragement.
“Well, he’s one of them city folk, ain’t he.” His voice was as groggy as his breath promised it would be.
”We’re city folk, Jerr, me and you. He probably lives in the country, a big house with a garage. Commutes in for work.”
“Yeah, well…” Jerr shifted on the bench, pulling his hands up inside his trouser pockets like a schoolboy disciplined for spitting, which he then did in a long sticky thread.
“Come on, have a guess. A fine suit. A job. A haircut. Clean looking.”
“Fifty!” he replied, excited.
“Fifty what? Thousand?”
“Fifty million,” he concluded, folding his arms triumphantly.
I looked over my shoulder, but the man was long gone. Vanishing into the mass of people into London’s underground.
“Fifty million is rather high. I would say he was about a two. Maybe a three depending on where he works, if he is married, or how many children he has.”
“That’s not much,” said Jerr.
“That buys him a few more years. Although he won’t be spending a single one sitting here with us, enjoying this glorious morning.”
Jerr’s expression turned from curious to indifferent, but he didn’t argue with the assessment. Jerr seemed a nice enough chap, and our conversation were always amiable, even when sober, which was surprisingly rare for a man with no wallet, belt, or toothbrush.
“What do you think your number is, Jerr?”
I asked him the question just as he reached under his end of the bench for a battered looking bag of KFC. He smiled, but turned away, digging into whatever passes for fried chicken these days.
Lucky Jerr. He’s not quite a zero, but well on the way to it. I envied his contentment.
I knew my own number, of course, and I worked hard every day to bring it down. I would help Jerr do the same. He was, after all, already one of the best friends I’d ever had. If I could save him, I think that would be the decent thing to do. He had no idea how dangerous wealth could be, or where a life of luxury could take you, and neither did I until I met a man, not unlike Jerr, this time last year.
It was lunchtime, and I sat alone in one of the many faceless burger places that pops up in every city, on every continent. A middle-aged, ragged-looking man approached me wearing an animated smile beneath his matted salt and pepper beard. He sat in the seat opposite from me, taking a moment to gather up his layers. He complimented me on my tie, and asked, quite simply, if I would buy him lunch.
“No chance. Go bother someone else,” I said, waving my hand as if dismissing a servant.
“No need to be rude. It’s a fair trade. If you buy me lunch, I will tell you a story that might extend your life.”
“Don’t threaten me, pal,” I said, not looking up as I worked over a mouthful of cheesy-smothered patty.
“It’s curious you see a simple trade as a threat to your life, are you that paranoid? I asked for something small, and by the look of you, easy to give, in exchange for something infinitely precious. You know the value of your life isn’t measured by what you have. It’s what you are able to give to others.
“Oh, I see. Religious, are you?”
“You could say that.”
I glared at him. “Okay, so what is it?”
“If you decline, nothing will change, and you will remain on your current path. Although, what I have to tell you will give you far longer to enjoy the things you love most.”
“What are you going on ab—”
“Hold on, Robert. Let me finish.”
“Huh? How—” I checked my jacket to see if I was still wearing my Stock Exchange ID. I wasn’t.
“I had the same choice,” the man continued. “I took it, and I’ve never looked back. I offer you this because I think you understand, and have for a long time, but you’ve been afraid to confront it. And no, I know what you’re thinking; I’m not dangerous.” The stranger leaned back, showing me the insides of his ragged layers. “I’m just offering you the chance to buy me lunch.”
Nothing about his stained, weather-beaten clothing or messy beard matched his voice, and I was mesmerised by his eloquence. I put my burger down and opened my wallet to reveal two-quid in small change and a twenty-pound note. Two-quid wouldn’t buy anything in this place, but despite having a bank-balance firmly in the black, even I found the rising price of anything and everything in London to be a significant irritation.
“Here,” I said, holding out the twenty. “Although I don’t think I need your advice, as you can see—” I signalled across the table, waving the banknote back and forth as though to direct him to a comparison of my new suit and his tattered rags.
The stranger’s eyes widened beneath his bushy eyebrows, but he pushed my hand, and the money, away.
“Thank you, but I can’t accept that.”
“It’s fine, I have plenty.” I regretted saying it and felt like a prideful idiot. What did I have to prove to this guy? He’d clearly been through enough. “Honestly pal. Take it.” I tossed the twenty across the empty table in front of him. Another regrettable action.
“You don’t have the faintest clue, do you? I’m trying to tell you; it’s too much. You can’t give a guy like me” — he waved in the vague direction of the note — “that much money. Don’t you know what that could do?”
“Mate. It’s twenty quid,” I replied, trying to gauge his reaction.
“It’s twenty quid, to you,” he said, pushing the note back to me with a grimace. “To me, that’s a pack of fags, two bottles of vodka, and a late night stumble under the wheels of a London bus. It’s a couple lines of the white stuff, and an ambitious swan dive into the Thames only to be found three miles upriver, bloated and nibbled at. Or worse, what if someone sees me pocket it and decides they need it more, catching me in a side street with an ugly blade in their hands?”
Before I could respond, the stranger leaned back, giving me a the sort of once over you might expect from a person about to barter on a second-hand car by calling out its numerous faults.
“I’d say your number is about two, maybe a little more.”
“I know. You can’t begin to imagine that number now, can you, but you’ll get there. Another three or four years judging by your shoes, but when you do—”
“—When I do what? What’s this about a number?” I snapped.
The stranger thumbed over his shoulder to the busy food counter, where the bustle of midday trade continued despite the apparent lunacy going on at my table. Curiosity got the better of me.
“Okay. If I buy you lunch, will you tell me what you are going on about?”
“That was always the offer. Yes.”
I bought him the same meal I’d ordered using the twenty-pound note he’d twice refused, and swiftly pocketed the change. It was the standard meal that a place like this no doubt made billions from around the world.
“Here,” I laid the tray down. “Are you going to tell me now?”
“Thank you. Of course.” He unwrapped his burger, closing his eyes as he bit into it. I couldn’t help but smile. I guess not everyone fell for this trick.
“Your number is around two million,” he said, taking great care to wipe the excess sauce from his beard, but as he spoke, the air wavered, as though charged by the proximity of a high voltage power line. “The secret is this. Everyone has a number; there is nothing you can do about it, you can’t increase it — not that I know of, or would dare to try — but with change and sacrifice, you can decrease it. The goal, of course, is zero.”
The stranger cut across my interruption with a firm, but polite wave of his hand. The intensity of the moment took a sudden leap, as he leaned across the table and bode for me to look him in the eye. They were the brightest blue I’d ever seen, almost transparent, and for a moment, nothing else existed.
“The number is absolute. The number is truth,” he said, locking that sharp gaze to mine.
“It is written into your soul.”
“What number?” I asked, waiting on his every word.
“Well, my number is around fifteen,” he continued, his voice taking on a syrupy texture, as though his words were no longer coming from a ragged stranger, but from a brother, reaching out to rescue me from danger. “Not million, mind you, just fifteen, which is why I can’t take a twenty.
“Yes. Two million pounds is your number, but—”
“I’m going to have two million pounds!” I shouted.
The sounds of the restaurant came rushing back, as though I’d recently been an incredible distance from it. The ragged man sat and stared, and it took me a moment to compose myself. Sure, I worked hard; it was entirely possible with another promotion or two I would be heading towards those numbers, and to think of all the things I could do with that sort of money! It would be a life of yachts and parties and never-ending sunshine for me.
I’ve always loved sitting in the sun.
The ragged man held up a finger, a subtle sign for me to be still. The same eerie quiet descended upon our table and the air seemed electric once again.
“Do you play the lottery?”
“What? Yes. Of course, are you saying I’m going to win the—”
“—You must stop that right away. You see, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. Whether you hit that number over the years through effort or skill, or if you hit that number, quite suddenly, through luck. Only the number matters. There is a line drawn above it,” the stranger picked a piece of food from his teeth. “I think of it as a ceiling.”
“What happens when I hit two million?”
“The same thing that would happen to me, if I took a twenty from you.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the details; what I could and couldn’t do, and what steps I would need to take to remain safe from the number. I quit my job. I sold my trendy Shoreditch flat, and gave every penny I had to an animal shelter I’d once seen advertised. It didn’t take long to accept the theory that everyone on Earth had a number to represent their financial weight, and that if you hit that maximum, it would destroy you. This morning, I only had to pick up a newspaper to see the theory in action. The rich were dying because of their money and getting into situations only possible through great wealth.
They say London has a homeless crisis, but as I wander the city, I can’t help but think that this is the result of some great awareness. That we are enlightening. When wealth stopped being a means to help one another, it began killing us instead. All a matter of balancing the scales. So, a year after meeting that ragged stranger I’m well on my way to zero. Every day I get to lean back on my bench outside Euston Station and enjoy the sunshine, free from the risks that wealth brings.
I’ll be a zero in no time, but first I have a story to tell.
So who’s buying me lunch?
Read “The Last Meal Of Longbarrow” by Adam William Inglis now!