Hidden Angel By Ronelle Smith
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Not rated by the Author.
A tired pensioner rests in a cafe to sip a coffee and check a lotto ticket sent to her in a Xmas Card from an unknown sender.
On a hot December day, Jennifer lowered her sixty-four year old frame gratefully into the cushioned chair in the small alcove of the coffee lounge. She was exhausted. Little did she know that in a few minutes time her life would change forever.
The air-conditioned centre had lured hundreds of Christmas shoppers inside away from the stifling temperatures that threatened to burn her hometown to a crisp. From the coolness of the dimly lit corner the grey-haired woman could watch the passing crowd unobserved, a weekly practice in which she delighted. In the distance she could hear Rolf Harris’s rendition of ‘Six White Boomers’, which was all but drowned out by the ear-piercing coffee grinding machine, and the raised voices of the coffee house patrons. The aroma of brewing coffee and hot-buttered raisin toast permeated the air so thickly you could almost taste them. She counted the number of people waiting at the counter. There were seven. That would mean she would have about a five-minute wait before her name was called indicating her order was ready.
Widowed some three years earlier, Jennifer was desperately lonely. Her siblings were scattered throughout the country only making contact by phone or card on her birthday or at Christmas. She had already received their perfunctory cards for the year, and brief as their messages were, she figured it was better than no communication at all. She sighed a deep sigh but then remembered the parcel at her feet and lovingly placed it on the table in front of her. She knew she had spent far too much money from her meagre savings on her twin grandsons, and there was still the astronomical cost of posting them airmail to Canada. She patted the velvety grey elephant. If you tugged on his trunk he bellowed and if you tickled his ribs he giggled.She put him to one side and pulled a colourful caterpillar out of the bag. Each segment when squeezed played a tune sweet enough to put any two year old to sleep.
Her eyes became moist. Oh!– how she wished she could be there to watch them open their presents on Christmas morning. Not wanting to draw attention to herself she pretended she had something in her eye and dabbed it gently with a tissue then cleaned her glasses before replacing them. A swift glance around the café reassured her that she had caused little concern and any interest that was shown was in the toys she had momentarily placed on the table.
Her daughter, Patricia, and her husband lived in Prince George a ten-hour drive north east of Vancouver in British Columbia. They were well settled– he as a cold water fisheries expert with the university, and Patricia, as an outdoor educationist with the local School District. With two little sons and busy schedules it was uncertain when they could visit Australia. Jennifer had placed this on her wish list along with the hope that her ‘frequent flyer’ points attached to her visa card would accumulate quickly so that maybe– just maybe, she could visit them sometime in the next three years. Again she gave a deep soulful sigh.
Sometimes Jennifer found sitting alone a little awkward, if not embarrassing.She detested the thought that others would ever pity her and yet she was acutely aware of her loneliness and would have it otherwise if she only knew how. Perhaps it was her defensive nature that warded off the invitations of well-meaning neighbours to join them for dinner, believing that they felt sorry for her. She simply hated that thought and would make up some excuse for her non-attendance. In doing so she acknowledged she was her own worst enemy.
Jennifer glanced over to the counter again– surely her name would be called soon. She noticed a couple of people eyeing the vacant chairs and space at her table.Although she would never deny anyone a seat if they asked, she really did not feel like having company or indulging in conversation. She turned her head so that they could not catch her attention, and observed the activities of the mall beyond the café.
As part of her weekly treat whilst sipping coffee, the widow would watch the passing parade of humanity and try to attach a history to certain individuals. Her observations included the tired mums with overloaded shopping trolleys and crying toddlers at heel, the bent and aged pensioners carrying a single supermarket bag no doubt with the barest essentials inside and, in contrast, the young, agile, sharply dressed businessmen and women, who could dodge around the human obstacles with the grace and ease of ballroom dancers. Then there were the obese people, mainly women and teenage girls. Jennifer felt deeply sorry for some of them, for their enormous bodies must surely restrict them in so many ways, preventing them from living a full life– a life taken for granted by others.
Right at that moment one woman, whom she had seen before, swayed into the coffee shop. When she halted in front of the counter her huge rolls of fat took a little extra time to catch up to the rest of her body. Her whole frame seemed to quiver like a poorly set bowl of jelly before coming to rest. All eyes were upon her and there was a distinct lull in the high-pitched chatter within the confines of the café.Jennifer could only imagine how horrible it must be, sensing that people were staring at you because of your size.
She turned her attention to her large black handbag resting at her feet.Rummaging in its depths she retrieved a Christmas card still in its envelope. She had been carrying it around for a few days and was pretty sure the lottery would have been drawn. She looked around the tables for a newspaper. These were regularly supplied by the establishment, along with a variety of popular magazines. She spotted one under the elbow of an elderly gentleman sitting two tables across from her. He was engrossed in loud conversation with an obviously deaf octogenarian who occasionally gave a loud gaw-faw in response to his companion’s tales.
Jennifer excused herself and asked if he had finished with the paper. Without looking up he handed it to her, leaving not the tiniest break in his animated story-telling. She thanked him and returned to her table quickly, for to leave it unattended in this busy café, was often to lose it.
In spite of the air conditioning it was very close and, as the shop had now reached its customer capacity, air circulation was poor. She began to perspire and feel uncomfortable as her fingers flipped over the pages. She wondered why she hadn’t been called to collect her skimmed flat white and raisin toast. Her face registered impatience when she noticed that the queue was no shorter than when she had placed her order. If she weren’t called soon she would make an inquiry.
Jennifer flattened out the paper to make her search easier. Her eyes glided over the newsprint examining the columns for a headline that would indicate Lotto Results. She couldn’t find anything and became sidetracked on an article about rising beef prices. She was about to close the newspaper when she noticed a little box in the lower left hand corner inside the front page, announcing yesterday’s Lotto Results. She placed the white envelope with the card inside in front of her.
There was something very strange about this Christmas greeting that Jennifer had found disturbing. The envelope was simply addressed to JENNIFER with no address and bearing no stamp. It had been dropped into her letterbox sometime in the past week and had been caught up in some junk mail that she had not opened. Unnoticed in the folds of colourful advertising, the card was almost thrown out and it was only that it slipped to one side revealing the white envelope, that it was saved. Jennifer was perplexed at the message inside.
‘Dear Jennifer,’ it read.
‘I know things have been quite difficult for you in the past few months.Please accept this gift of a Lotto ticket in the hope it will change your circumstances.
Have a Merry Xmas and a simply wonderful New Year.
Best wishes from a friend.’
Rubbing her temples as she read the card again, she could not fathom who the friend might be. Her family had been accounted for and so were her neighbours, for they had all signed their cards clearly. Her circle of friends who lived beyond her crowded street was so small you could count them on one hand, and they too were accounted for. The ‘friend’ was a mystery and Jennifer did not like mysteries.
She checked the draw number with that of the Lotto ticket. Yes, this was the draw and it had taken place yesterday, according to the date on the top of the little box.She proceeded to check each of the lines of numbers carefully. Her eyes scanned the third row of numbers and then went back and scanned again. Tiny beads of perspiration trickled down her forehead and her heart began to race. Her hands trembled as her index finger traced the line slowly, her lips silently forming each number until she reached the sixth. Her head began to spin and everything seemed to go red as she slumped forward onto the table.
‘Jennifer…’There was a brief pause.
‘Jennifer…order for Jennifer,’ called the girl, more loudly, from behind the counter.
There was confusion at Jennifer’s table. Two ladies came to her assistance, one holding up her head then turning it to the side so that she could breathe. A glass of cold water was fetched immediately and as the ashen-faced grandmother regained consciousness she was encouraged to sip. Her two helpers decided it was far too hot in the corner and as soon as she was well enough they should take her outside into the mall where there was at least some movement of cool air. They gathered up her belongings stuffing the envelope, card, and lotto ticket into her handbag and zipped it up securely. The coffee shop’s newspaper was folded and placed in the bag with the soft toys. The ladies sat with her until they were satisfied that she was coherent and the colour had returned to her cheeks. They asked if they could call someone to come and pick her up. She replied that there was no one to call and reassured them she was feeling much better and could make her own way home.Hesitantly, the ladies returned to the coffee shop where Jennifer’s cold coffee and raisin toast still sat on the counter.
The days that followed were a blur. Having checked the winning numbers a hundred times Jennifer decided that she had no idea what to do next. She was horrified at the thought of anyone discovering that she was a Lotto winner, for if they did, she had no doubt she would be the centre of attention. She did nothing about the ticket for three days except, perhaps, a little daydreaming.
A cottage with a garden overlooking green pastureland would be wonderful….a feeling of space– that was what she wanted more than anything. No! More than anything, she wanted to visit the family in Canada and hug her grandchildren. If the winning prize were not sufficient to do both then she would choose the latter.
Slowly a plan began to materialise in her mind. She would visit Mr. Slattery, the solicitor who, following her husband’s death, had handled his affairs. He seemed a trustworthy fellow and she would ask him to act on her behalf.
Mr. Slattery was more than happy to be of assistance especially after checking the authenticity of the ticket. He had a feeling that Jennifer was in for quite a surprise, and his association with Mrs Thompson could prove quite lucrative in the long term.He organised for her to fill in the necessary forms, took photocopies of the winning ticket and then drove her to the lottery office in Sydney where he had prearranged a meeting with two lottery office officials and an accountant.
Jennifer sat transfixed in the chair in the well-appointed office of the State’s Lotteries Head Accountant. She listened in disbelief as each man congratulated her and gave her sound advice regarding her win and in particular what she could expect if news of the windfall was somehow released to the public. She was so glad Mr. Slattery was present for he would protect her interests and explain some of the legal terms that were used during the meeting.
As the session concluded the accountant stood up, shook her hand and solemnly presented her with a check for 2.5 million dollars.
A gasp escaped her lips for it was only at this point in time that her win became a reality. The aged pensioner who had watched every cent in her weekly budget was totally speechless and looked from person to person finally resting her eyes on the solicitor beseeching him to come to her rescue. Before he could utter a word the accounted added cheekily,
It took a week for the full realization of the win and its implications to sink in.Jennifer had been advised to think seriously and conservatively about the way in which she dispensed the money. She had been told that some winners went on a wild spending spree and within a few months had very little money left. Others had succumbed to the pleadings of family, friends and charities, and had been left with only a fraction of their windfall. Mr. Slattery suggested she bank the cheque, and then take a full month of thoughtful consideration before spending a cent of it.
Jennifer spent long hours, pen in hand, writing a list of things she wanted to do. She laughed to herself when she reached the bottom of the page for she knew she could not achieve half of them in a single lifetime. She decided she would pick out ten of the most important ones and prioritise them.
No matter how many lists she made, visiting her little family in Canada was always at the top. Her solicitor thought it best that she remain silent about the Lotto win and she had agreed. But how could she organise a trip overseas without her daughter becoming alarmed as to how she was going to pay for it? The Canadian family were well aware of her financial situation and the fact that she was considering selling her home and moving into a small unit. They had occasionally sent her money whenever they could afford it.
Settling into her sofa, Jennifer pondered on the matter until she decided that she would tell a half-truth and say that she had won a prize in a lottery, enough to get her to Canada and back. When she was with them and face to face she would tell them the whole story.
Excitement surged through her body like an electric current.It pervaded every cell until she found herself laughing and sobbing at the same time. The release of tension and worry was euphoric. She felt that life was worth living and the future held some wonderful possibilities. Her hands shook as she dialled the number for Prince George.
Weeks later Jennifer stood tall and straight, her skin glowed with health, her blue eyes twinkled and her grey hair, which was usually twisted and pinned up in a simple bun, had been skilfully trimmed and tinted. The old Jennifer was gone, replaced by a confident attractive lady who smiled and greeted everyone. She had accepted invitations to dinner at the homes of several of her neighbours and thoroughly enjoyed herself. She decided that they were truly caring people who acted, not out of pity as she had imagined earlier, but out of genuine concern for her welfare.This concept set in motion a series of thoughts that were troubling and guilt-ridden.Jennifer had convinced herself that ‘the friend’ on the Christmas card that bore the winning ticket could only be one of her neighbours. She wanted to share some of her winnings with them. But with whom? How could she find out without giving away her secret?
Afternoon teas were the answer. Jennifer devised a scheme where, over the next four weeks, she invited each of her neighbours to afternoon tea.During the pleasantries of delectable hot scones with jam and cream, steaming cups of tea and happy chatter, she asked, what she thought were diplomatic questions, to see if she could discover her benefactor.
All went well with just the occasional raised eyebrow at the curious questions, until Liz came to afternoon tea. Liz, who lived two doors down the road, was always outspoken. When Jennifer asked if she had perhaps dropped a second Christmas card with something in it into her letterbox Liz replied that she had not. But when the hostess asked the same question, thinly disguised, three more times within ten minutes Liz became very concerned. The neighbour, in her forthright manner, demanded to know if Jennifer had trouble remembering things lately.
Normally an accusation such as this would have shocked and mortified Jennifer, but she burst out laughing and reassured Liz she did not have Alzheimer’s.
Jennifer had made a scrapbook of the amazing bits and pieces that told the story of her new fortune. The book contained photocopies of the winning ticket, the various forms that had been filled in and, of course, a photocopy of the cheque for 2.5 million dollars. Alongside these she had pasted her neatly typed priority list. The newspaper that had been inadvertently stolen from the coffee shop was still in her possession and to this she took a pair of scissors. Carefully cutting out the box in which the lotto results were displayed she noticed something that had escaped her attention before. The winning ticket had been purchased in Berrylane. Her eyes lit up.Berrylane was a pretty little village not far from her own town, on the railway line to the North.She could catch a bus or train there and possibly make some inquires about the purchased ticket. As there was only one Newsagency in the village she felt sure she should not have to look any further.
The following day Jennifer found herself standing in front of a jovial newsagent. He seemed to joke with each of his customers and they left his shop smiling. She knew she was in the right place, for proudly displayed on the wall behind him was a brass shield stating that the winning Lotto ticket had been purchased there.Jennifer handed the man some money for a magazine then pointed to the shield and asked him if he knew who had bought the ticket.
‘Wish I did,’ he replied, ‘I think we could become firm friends’.
He handed her some change, chuckling as he did so.
Resigning herself to the fact that, in spite of all her investigations, she might never discover the identity of her card sender, Jennifer contented herself with the organization of the first item on her priority list. Today was a special day. She would visit her local travel agent and book her trip to Canada stopping off in Hawaii for a couple of days on the way. She would fly first class and stay in a really up-market hotel. The idea was delicious and sent goose bumps over her skin, but nothing could surpass the expectation of hugging two little boys that she had never seen and embracing a wonderful daughter and son-in-law.
With her ticket and schedule tucked into the cavernous recesses of her handbag Jennifer decided that a skimmed flat white and raisin toast were the order of the day. She returned to the place where her new life began and placed her order.Her favourite spot in the alcove was available and she wove her way between the tables in its direction. As she did so her eyes met with those of a suntanned, white-headed man probably in his late sixties. He nodded to her and asked her how she was.Jennifer racked her brain trying to think where she had seen him before but could not place him. She replied that she was well and looking forward to her cup of coffee, hoping that it would not be too long in the coming. He laughed and nodded and she continued on to her table.
Occasionally he looked up over the top of his newspaper viewing the woman with a sense of satisfaction. The sadness had left her eyes and he could determine a sense of purpose about her demeanour. He smiled as he watched her examining travel brochures. That was a good sign that things had improved in her life. He figured it must have been at least six months since he shared the coffee table in the alcove with this lady. She had been searching for a place to sit and, finding the alcove occupied, turned to seek a vacant table elsewhere. There were none.Michael did not hesitate to offer her the other chair at his table. She had given him a fleeting smile with her thanks.
No words had been spoken between them until Jennifer took out a letter and began to read it. Tears had trickled silently down her cheeks and she had looked up at Michael in embarrassment not wishing to be noticed. With sympathy, he reached out to her.
‘Bad news?’ he had asked.
Jennifer had looked a little flustered and replied that it was a letter from her daughter in Canada and that there were times when she missed the little family very much. Michael had gently coaxed her to tell him about her daughter and grandsons. As the conversation progressed they discovered that he had something in common. Many years ago he had worked as a tree planter on the mountain slopes surrounding Prince George and he knew the town quite well. He introduced himself to her and she gave him her name– leaving it at Jennifer. The conversation had drifted somehow to her present situation. He could see and understand the pain and loneliness in her eyes. Jennifer had felt strangely at peace with the stranger, and at no time felt threatened by his leading questions.
Michael was an extraordinary man. Each Christmas for the past twenty years he had bought ten Lotto tickets, placed them in Christmas cards and dropped them in the appropriate boxes of people he had spoken to during the year who were down on their luck. He was always extremely discreet about finding their addresses and never identified himself, except for signing ‘from a friend’. Jennifer’s address was easy to obtain as the envelope was left exposed to him throughout their conversation.He seldom saw the person again and often wondered if their life circumstances improved. Jennifer was the exception and he was happy to see that she looked fit and well.
Jennifer drained the last drops of coffee from her cup. She had looked across at the white-headed man several times trying to remember where she had met him.His friendly face and comforting voice were familiar but beyond that there was no recollection. It was as though their meeting had been blocked from her memory.She felt it was very rude of her not to remember and, as she gathered up her belongings, she decided she would apologise and ask him if he would remind her where they had met. She hunted under the table for her shopping bag and the sandal that she had slipped off.Satisfied that nothing had been left behind, she turned in the direction of the patron she wished to visit. To her dismay the table was empty and the kindly looking man was nowhere to be seen. Only a neatly folded newspaper and an empty coffee mug gave evidence that he had ever been there.