He arose, staggered dreamily across the lino-covered floor, and with a cursory brush of his hand cleared a stripe of condensation. Squinted eyes peered out the bedroom window. A hoar frost covered the pavement and a foggy haze formed a halo around the streetlight.
After a quick shave and a mug of tea, he hurried out, his coat lapels pulled tightly to his pleuritic chest, the plastic lunchbox secured under his oxter. As he hurried along, he continually coughed, repeatedly clearing his throat, and spitting uncouthly on the frosted ground.
On reaching the bus stop, his breathing wheezy from hurrying, he stepped back against the wall as the spasms of coughing continued to rack his failing lungs. He removed a cigarette from the packet and dispersing the tears on his cheeks with a brief wipe of his coat sleeve, he placed it between his trembling lips. Searching vainly he cursed quietly as he fumbled through empty pockets. A dejected look on his pale face he looked beseechingly along the line, the cough recurring in spasms. Timidly he walked over to a young lad in the queue.
“Got a light son?” He inquired hopefully.
The young lad looked dreamily into his face. “Wha? …”
He displayed the cigarette in his shaky hand.
“Naw!” Came the abrupt reply.
Dispirited he retreated to the wall, pulling the lapels across his chest and stamping his feet, a mixture of frustration and chill, the unlit cigarette still drooping from his cracked lips.
A glow showed in the darkness exposing a face approaching the bus stop. “Oh!..” he mused joyfully, and moved into the path of the smoker.
“Ah!! … A light mate?” He mumbled holding up the cigarette. The smoker his hands warm in his trouser pockets projected his head in response. Two faces moved closer and he puffed vigorously the intensified glow portraying a more pleasing façade.
His benefactor continued without response,
He drew deeply and allowed the smoke infiltrate his lungs, savouring the enjoyment for a moment before exhaling, the nervous twitch of the thumb knocking off the non-existent ash. The bus approached and he delved his left hand into his trouser pocket, removing the change and counted out the correct amount. He moved forward from the wall and joined the end of the queue as another female commuter hurried from the misty darkness. He stepped onto the platform and looked anxiously into the crowded lower deck, the driver collecting the money voiced noisily.
“Move up the bus! Sorry sir!… no more thank you!”
He tutted derisively, his under-lip thrust out with contempt and negation he withdrew from the platform.
“Ah! Good!… here's another bus!” he commented, stamping his feet enthusiastically to restore the circulation.
On entering the workplace, he was punching his timecard when he heard the enraged voice.
“What bloody time is this to come into work? You're bloody late again… I warned you before. This is the second late morning this week. … you may just go home again and if you can't be here on time then don't bother coming back!”
He knew there was no point in remonstrating, his boss was volatile, a bit like his wife. He turned and exited the building and with his hands delved into his trouser pockets, his lunch box under his oxter and his shoulders hunched defensively he sauntered to the bus stop.
He could not go home and he did not want to be sauntering about town with a lunch box under his arm. He would get the next bus into Belfast city centre, go into Castle Court shopping centre, at least it would be warm there. Alighting in Royal Avenue, he hurried across the road towards the entrance. Once inside, thankful of the warm surroundings, he gave an involuntary shiver.
He walked down the lower mall searching vainly, in every nook and cranny for a secure place to conceal the lunchbox. His suspicious activity soon came to the notice of the security cameras. He took the elevator and went up to the upper floor, there was less pedestrian traffic, giving him more opportunity to look for a hiding place. He was still under some observation in the security control room but his threat rating reduced and ranked as more unusual than suspicious. Security priority now directed towards a pair of suspect female shoplifters who had entered the precincts. Setting the lunchbox on the seat beside him, he gazed down on the shoppers in the mall below but as he shifted gawkily on the seat, his hand knocked the lunchbox into the gap between a seat and the wall. He cursed softly as he bent down to retrieve the lunch-box and returned to the seat. His mind reflected on the incident. He moved the lunchbox to the back of the seat and let it drop-down again between the seat and the wall. It was barely visible.
‘Yes! That would do!’ He was now free and could roam the town for a few hours and collect the lunchbox later. His mind set on looking at the jackets in Primark further along Royal Avenue, headed down the elevator towards the exit. A sharp-eyed security woman alerted by his change in demeanour and pace refocused her camera and followed him. As he exited the shopping centre, it suddenly dawned on her that he was no longer carrying the box. She called head of security and relayed her concern. Floor security moved quickly to the area and located the box jammed between the seat and the wall. This was a suspicious package and not something to treat lightly in Northern Ireland. The shopping mall was immediately evacuated and the bomb disposal unit notified.
Harry came sauntering out of Primark about half an hour later to find the area around Castle Court sealed off with the blue lights of emergency vehicles flashing ominously. Curiosity getting the better of him, he idled up to the security tapes and approached the young police constable.
“What's going on mate?”
“A suspicious box has been found on the upper floor of the mall and the bomb disposal team are going to blow it.”
Harry's mind flashed to his lunchbox.
“Ah! … where exactly on the upper floor?” He enquired sheepishly.
“Under a seat apparently!”
Harry blushed and stretched his lips wide exposing smoke tinted teeth.
“Ah!... it might be my lunchbox mate!”
“What??” Inquired the young constable, his face contorted in disbelief.
“I left my lunchbox there earlier; I didn't think it would do any harm!.......”
The police officer lifted the tape. “Come with me sir?” He instructed.
Harry followed guiltily.
“This man says he left his lunchbox on the upper mall Sergeant!” Reported the Constable to his superior. A gruff middle-aged man in uniform turned to Harry. Harry told him the story. He was escorted into the shopping centre and up the elevator to the upper mall. The army had built a wall of sandbags around the seat and the Bomb Disposal team were preparing to detonate the suspect package.
“Hold everything!” Shouted the Sergeant as he escorted Harry to the seat.
Harry sheepishly knelt down and retrieved his lunchbox. Red-faced he arose as angry eyes shot daggers at him.
“Sorry chaps! I didn't mean to cause you any trouble!”
“Right sir, follow me. You’ll have to come to the police station and make a statement.” The sergeant commanded authoritatively.
As they walked out of Castle Court shopping mall into a cordoned off Royal Avenue, photographers and film crews gathered behind the police tapes were snapping and filming.
After three hours in the police station, Harry was released pending further inquiries, the iniquitous lunchbox held by the police as evidence.
Quite an eventual day he thought as he headed for home.
“Where's your lunchbox Harry?” Inquired his wife when he landed home.
“Ah!... I must've left it in work.” He stammered not wanting to reveal its true location.
Harry and his wife were sitting watching the evening news on the television when the reporter commented on the Castle Court shopping centre having been evacuated due to a mysterious package, which turned out to be an innocent lunchbox. Then as the commentary ended, the cameras zoomed in showing Harry being escorted to a police Land Rover. His wife gob smacked turned to her guilty looking husband.
“What the hell are you playing at? … Telling me you were at work today and I see you on television traipsing about Royal Avenue.”
“Ah! … It’s a long story love; I’ll not bore you with the details.” He replied uneasily, humiliated by his glaring faux pas.
“Well just remember that on pay-day Harry!… I want all my money and no sad stories!”
He did not reply.
Anything for a quiet life, he mused.