It was late Autumn and the trees were shedding golden leaves that swirled in eddies on the crossroads. The damp gutters were filled with leaves and the children shuffled through them on the way to school. The clear shrill song of a robin came from the sycamores back of the cafe where the old man sat.
He tilted his head on the side of his good ear so he might hear the song better. A double-decker bus swept past with ‘Smarden’ on its billboard. The wind the bus left ruffled the old man’s thin white hair where he sat in the shelter a wicker screen made with the wall of the cafe. Late roses blossomed and twisted in the screen.
A waitress came with a tray.
“Another cup of coffee sir?” she asked, noting his dry wrinkled hands, his thread-worn jacket, the deeply lined strangely scarred face.
“Thank you. No,” he said slowly.
“Will there be anything else?”
“That will be thirty-five p., sir.”
The old man fumbled the inside pocket of his waistcoat.
He pulled out three coins. The girl leaned over in her clean apron. With fine supple hands she spread the coins on the table. A small diamond engagement ring flashed on her finger.
“That’s not enough,” she said suspiciously.
“It is all that I have,” the old man peered up through grey hard-seeing eyes.
“Where do you live sir?” the girl asked. She swept back the blond hair a gust had driven partly over her eyes.
The old man’s mouth remained stubbornly closed. He looked across at the bank that had just opened. The girl shook her head and swayed saucily away with his cup and the last of his money.
The old man looked around at the other tables. He saw that he was quite alone now. He looked across at the bank again. He had not noticed anybody enter its doors.
He felt between the buttons of his wrinkled, once white, too many times washed shirt. Careful as his lightly trembling hands would allow, he pulled out the gun and lay it on his lap. He looked at it tenderly. It was an old pitted Smith and Wesson ’45, an American sergeant with Wingate had given him in Burma. The wood of the grip was gnarled, and there was a small piece missing. He stuck it back and closed the flaps of his jacket protectively.
The girl came back with a dusting cloth. She dusted the tabletops and the chairs, and as high up on the tops of the umbrellas that shaded each table as she could reach.
The old man stood up uncertainly, and the girl saw the stain around the crotch of his worn trousers. He took his cane from the other seat and started towards the crossroad’s edge.
The girl watched him go. It must be terrible to be that old and feeble, she thought. He must have been nice looking once.
You can tell he must have been. Wonder where he comes from? I’ve never seen him here. He looks as though he was army once. He’s got that straight back my Harold has, and he tries to keep his shoulders the same way. She went on dusting.
The old man came to the crossroad’s edge. He stood listening and looking about. A car passed, and he saw a younger reflection of himself in its glass as it went by. He worked across the road carefully and then he was entering the doorway of the bank.
A teller looked up over the top of her glasses. Through bright red painted lips she said, good morning, in a flat professional voice. The old man nodded. He stood uncertainly, catching his breath, leaning heavily on his cane.
He looked around the bank. There was a fresh pink-cheeked girl and a clerk sitting together back of the counter. They were smiling secretly at each other, the young man’s hand on her knee below their desk. The female teller looked down at her hand. She was painting her fingernails with bright varnish to match her lips.
The old man hobbled over to the counter. He leaned against it for support, reached into his shirt, and slipped out the gun, sticking the snub-nosed barrel along the top of the counter.
“I don’t wish to hurt anybody,” he said.
The teller swept off her glasses. She could see a little way down the great dark-rifled hole of the muzzle.
“What do you want?” she said pompously.
The two who had been talking turned and froze where they sat. They looked at each other startled.
“You,” the old man said to the clerk. “Open the vault. Fill one of the money sacks. Fill it with twenty pound notes.”
“You’d better do as he says Larry,” the teller said. “He’s got a gun.”
“I can see that,” the clerk said white-faced. “It’s a bloody big four five automatic.” He got up carefully.
“Do as I say and nobody will get hurt,” the old man said.
His hand was shaking lightly and there was a tremble on his lower lip.
The clerk went over, unlocked the safe, swung back the heavy steel door, and started scooping bank notes into the sack.
“We don’t have enough twenties to fill it,” he said after a little.
“Tens and fives will do quite nicely,” the old man said.
Just then the village policeman stepped into the bank.
“Stop Burney,” the woman teller said quickly. “This gentleman’s got a gun pointed at my belly.”
The village policeman stopped dead in his tracks. He could see now that what he had heard was true. He turned on his heels.
“That was a policeman,” the woman teller said to the old man. “Don’t you think you had better go?”
“Hand me the sack,” the old man said. He was trembling badly now, and did not look as though he might be able to stand much longer. A police whistle screamed and screamed outside.
The clerk came over with the sack that hung down heavily.
He swung it over the counter top. The old man stuck the gun in his waist, gathered the mouth of the sack, and pulled it with his free hand. It swung with its weight and nearly threw him off balance. With the help of his cane, he made a few stumbling paces towards the door, swayed, dropped the sack and sat on it. Trembling badly, he pulled the gun out of his waist and sat there holding it on his knee.
The hollow wail of a police siren sounded outside and far away. It came steadily closer. Nobody moved in the bank.
They looked at each other, and they looked at the old man, who tried to stand up but there seemed no strength in his legs any more. So he sat, one hand resting on his cane, the other on the gun in his lap.
A tall stone-faced police officer blocked the light in the doorway. A pale ray of sunlight struck the buttons on his epaulettes. He stood there looking down on the old man. He had a police special in his hand, but he was not pointing it at anything in particular.
“It’s no use old man,” he said, his voice strong and well modulated.
“Go away,” the old man said. He motioned with the ’45’ for the police officer to leave the way he had come in. The police officer sucked his teeth, turned and went out.
Across the street at the cafe, a charwoman in an overfilled pink skirt, bosom-bursting pink blouse, a shopping basket clutched under her arm, had come up to the waitress who was standing at the road’s edge watching the show across the road in the bank.
“You ‘aven’t seen an old man with a cane,” the charwoman asked, her head nodding continuously.
“He’s robbing the bank,” the girl said excitedly.
“He’s up to what?” said the charwoman, glancing unbelievingly at the bank.
“He didn’t have enough money to pay for his coffee. Maybe that’s why he’s robbing the bank,” the girl said excitedly.
“Didn’t know he had any money,” the char said sharply, her head nodding all the time.
“He did. But he didn’t have enough. He’s sitting on a few thousand now, so they’re saying.”
“My God. Oh my God! Don’t believe it. What ever will the old ‘orror get up to next?” The charwoman stood on the pavement’s edge.
“Officer,” she called. “Officer. It’s important.”
The police officer looked to see if the crossroads were clear, then stepped over sharply.
“The old man, …. ”
“You know him madam?”
“I care for him. What’s he up to in there!”
“He’s sitting on a sack of money and he’s armed,” the police officer said tightly. “How dangerous is he?”
“Captain Pelham-Reed dangerous! He’s not dangerous.
He’s just a mischievous old ‘orror. That’s what he is.”
“Mischievous or not, you’d better come on over and have a word with him, seeing as he’s in your care.”
At the door of the bank, the charwoman called, “Captain. Captain Pelham. It’s me, .. .It’s Rosy. I’ve finished the shopping. Come to take you home. I’ve got ever such nice mutton chops for your lunch.”
“Keep out,” the old man said. “Keep away. I don’t want mutton chops.”
“Come on captain. You know you love mutton.”
Over her shoulder she said to the police officer, “He’s alone. Nobody ever comes to visit him. It’s a shame really. He’s two sons somewhere, but they never come. He’s a nice old man. Gets up to tricks sometimes. He was wounded badly, a few times they say. He fought well for his country he has.”
And then, “Come on Captain Pelham. We must be off then.I’ll bring the car. Put that gun away. The police will have it.
I told you if they see it they’ll ‘ave it.”
And then to the officer, “Don’t think it’s loaded or anything. He always says as it is, to keep me from touching it. But I don’t think it is. He wouldn’t harm a soul really. Never seen him harm a fly. He’ll sit and listen to the birds sing all summer long if you leave him alone.
He loves to hear the birds. I don’t think it’s loaded. It’s just an old relic he loves. It’s like his toy. It’s all he can say that he’s got really.”
In the bank, the old man raised the gun till the barrel rattled in his few aged teeth. His brown-blotched finger whitened on the trigger, and there was a sudden blinding flash in his head.
And that was all he ever knew. It took them three days to clear up the mess he had made.
Story used on the BBC. 1982
Of course, this story was written before gun control. CLB