Clear Conscience in Five Acts, by Mileva Anastasiadou
The lady in black stood pondering before proceeding with her plan. She spent more money than the year before, because of the worsening circumstances in the country. She wasn’t aware of the failing economy first hand, yet that was what she heard at the balls she had been attending which certainly didn’t lack the glamour of old times, yet they were more discreet so as to not attract attention.
She made sure nobody would recognize her. She stepped out of her expensive car, told the driver to pick her up in an hour and walked into the market, black glasses, black dress, black coat, black shoes, black scarf covering her hair. She ordered two men working for her husband to discreetly follow and intervene only in case of extreme emergency. Those poor people could be unpredictable sometimes. They could prove mean and greedy and ungrateful, not recognizing her will and effort to help them during the festive season.
She paid for the best meat available, and then chose the poor by the clothes or by their expressions – she had an eye for those things. The cash she carried in her purse almost ran out, yet she kept a few bucks for a visit to her favorite hairstylist, as a reward for all the good she did. She didn’t regret her actions or the money spent, although she didn’t enjoy the spectacle of the poor approaching to greet and thank her. It was for a good cause though. She was proud of herself. Her conscience was clear.
This was not the life he had felt entitled to, the life he had imagined he deserved. Beaten down, he was unwilling to admit it, even to himself, let alone to his spoiled wife.
His faith was restored when the rich lady picked him from afar and handed him her gift. He grabbed the bag with the meat and kissed her hand in gratitude. He had spent many days at the market. He had nothing better to do after he got fired anyway. Unemployment felt like a curse. If only he knew who had cast that curse on him.
It had been five weeks, more or less. In the beginning he thought that his condition would be resolved soon, without having to admit his defeat to his wife. She often complained about all those lazy poor people who often hang out in the streets, protesting about the worsening working conditions, unemployment, low wages and all. He used to nod in agreement, yet lately he avoided her eyes when he heard her talk this way.
He put the bag on the backseat and headed home, hoping Christmas would pass painlessly. By New Year’s Day, his seemingly orderly life would probably collapse.
He had been avoiding them for years, those ruthless beggars who took advantage of red lights to come and ask for money, in exchange for roughly cleaning the windscreen. This time, he rolled down the window and gave the man some change.
The stranger smiled at him in gratitude. He looked back at him with derision.
He had been kind though, and his conscience would be clear for a while.
He didn’t even count the change in his hand. He wanted to leave this graceless windshield-cleaning job and this country which temporarily hosted him, at first chance.
A young man came his way, stooped, limping, ready to fall down to the ground.
“Can I have some change man?”
He didn’t understand his words, yet he felt sorry for him. He certainly looked like an addict, obviously in pain. He gave him a couple of coins from what he had collected during the day. The young man patted him on the back and thanked him.
He would never allow himself to end up like this. He did what he had to do though; he actually helped that poor junkie and thus felt a bit more joyful than usual. His conscience was clear.
The young man is not satisfied. He needs a robust trick as soon as possible. He sees the old lady walking out of the bank in the corner of his eye. Whether it’s payday or not, the old lady has surely some money in her purse. Moments before the young man approaches to attack, the old lady stumbles. He doesn’t miss the chance to save her from falling.
“Thank God you were there to catch me.”
She looks at him in gratitude and doesn’t notice him stealing her purse. He got lucky after all. He doesn’t feel guilt. If he hadn’t been there at the right moment, the old lady would have gotten away with a hip fracture at the very least. In a way, he earned that money. Actually proud of himself for a while, his conscience is clear as he slinks off down the street andinto the cover of oncoming pedestrians.
The old lady hasn’t yet realized her purse is missing. A few coins she had been keeping in her pocket ensure her a piece of cheese pie, yet what’s left is not enough for the man whom she watches sleep at her doorstep the minute she takes the first bite. Only then does she realize her purse is lost, when she attempts to find it in search for some more change for that poor man, although he doesn’t seem to be asking for anything. It takes her a moment to shrug off the loss of the purse, but she does so with a fatalism that anyone might find admirable, if anyone knew.
She splits the pie in two and keeps a piece for herself. She then gently awakens the man and offers him the other half.
They sit on the doorstep eating. He’s hungry for food, she’s hungry for company.
“It’s such a beautiful day,” says the man. The old lady nods, looking at the cloudless sky.
They sit there for a while, watching people pass by. Some are rich, some on the verge of poverty, some are strangers or addicts, yet most of them walk proud, buying their way into a clear conscience, then wearing it as a talisman against misfortune, or even as a badge.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, such as Menacing Hedge, the Molotov Cocktail, Fear of Monkeys, Infective Ink, Ofi press, Maudlin House and many others. She has published two books in Greek and a chapbook in English (Once Upon a Dystopia) by Cosmic Teapot Publishing. She’s on Twitter here.