Diminishing Returns by Mike Fox
It was in Joseph’s nature to perform random acts of kindness, so random that they rarely attracted payback, or even attention. The fact that he liked to help people spontaneously was not something he had ever thought out, more a by-product of his nature. He was a dropper of coins into paper cups: the sort that rested on cold pavements before cross-legged people huddled in sleeping bags on bleak winter afternoons. He was a befriender of transient animals, hungry, ailing or otherwise, to the point where his small basement flat could resemble an impromptu menagerie. Not least, he was an unpaid shopping assistant, fetching groceries for elderly men and women, who mostly forgot to be grateful.
Some people give because they feel they’re rich, or lucky, or that they have some love to spare. Joseph, to all appearances, was not like this. His elongated features, downcast in repose, suggested someone gazing into a still pool of sadness whose surface reflected the larger sadness of the world. Perhaps, with each kind action, he felt himself dipping his hands into this pool, hoping that every scoop of water, taken elsewhere, would make it smaller.
How Joseph himself benefitted from this process was not immediately apparent. There was no sign that his kindness was fed by joy, in fact someone who took the time to look might intuit a sense of failure so embedded that no success could displace it. Because Joseph was one of those people who gave the impression that somehow, in some unspecified circumstance, life had gone wrong. In consequence, his one remaining strategy seemed to lie in helping others.
This lent him the aura of a man apart. Most people, by giving, hope for reciprocation. I do something for you – you do something for me: a sort of bartering gone clandestine under the dissembling heap of modern manners. Not Joseph, as far as it was possible to see.
Joseph’s parents had died before he reached the age of fifty. His other relatives, sparse anyway, had given up on him long before that. His only remaining symbol of family contact was the letter he wrote every fortnight to his elderly aunt Eloise, whom he not seen for many years, and who, as might be expected, never replied.
Unbeknown to Joseph, however, Aunt Eloise, perched in an adapted leather armchair in a care home in the far north-west of Scotland, looked forward to these simple accounts of his mundane life, reading them several times over, and rueing that her severely arthritic hands prevented her from writing back. Nevertheless, she had developed a very clear impression of his character. A lifelong humanist herself, she believed his pages of artless description to be nothing less than the work of a temporal saint.
For a while Joseph continued to write after Aunt Eloise died. Eventually the letters, forming a small pile in her pigeon hole, were passed to the solicitor charged with executing her will. Shortly after that, Joseph received an official document explaining that he was the sole beneficiary of what proved to be a small fortune.
Initially his life continued as before, though now he felt compelled to give each homeless person he passed a ten pound note. Because of this, the high street pavement became densely populated at times, coinciding with his daily trips to the supermarket, while amongst themselves the local dispossessed began to refer to him, not entirely facetiously, as ‘The Messiah’.
It would be difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to locate the exact point when all this began to change. For several months after the inheritance arrived he remained tangled in previous habits: he helped others, he lived simply, he continued to buy himself only necessities. But then…
Would it be ridiculous to describe the purchase of a tweed jacket as an epiphany? Maybe what happened would be more explicable if the impulse itself, followed by unusually decisive action, could be viewed as the actual catalyst. Because it was as though, via this small moment of consumerism, Joseph began his induction into the richness of the world around him.
Prior to this his interest in clothes had been utilitarian: two shirts, two sweaters, two pairs of trousers, one coat, enough pants and socks, only the latter bought when new. And each garment seemed to hang from his body as though perplexed by the shape it was supposed to enhance. So the jacket was a departure.
‘Tweed is cool now,’ the young sales assistant had told him as he tried it on. He looked in the mirror, trying to reconcile himself to the sheer pleasure he felt at the sight of himself in that jacket.
‘I feel guilty wanting to spend two-hundred and fifty quid on this,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘I should be using it to help someone else.’
The sales assistant touched him lightly between the shoulder blades. ‘I release you from all guilt and all duty. You’re free to make the purchase.’
This could have been a standard spiel, designed to melt reluctance, but the effect was extraordinary. All inhibition fell away. Joseph walked out of the shop wearing the jacket as if it was a new life.
And the feeling endured. Free from all guilt and duty. The words were nothing less than a conscience-ectomy.
The following morning he went to the local hole-in-the-wall and withdrew the maximum amount it would allow from his recently inflated bank account. Then, hunching over carefully, he folded the notes into hundred pound wedges and tied each with an elastic band. Placing these securely in the left-hand pocket of his jacket, he walked down the high street in a valedictory manner, depositing the tiny bundles one at a time in the cups, caps and folded blankets of his swelling line of beneficiaries, now wide-eyed and open mouthed.
‘Make it last,’ he said to each of them, smiling in a way they had never seen before. ‘I won’t be back again.’
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.