Tiny Pencils

The industrial revolution was an incredible time, which is to say it was an incredibly bad time for a lot of people. Before socialised medicine and workers’ rights Britain was a country that had everything it needed for its people to work hard and to make money. Unfortunately the self-serving amongst them saw the money first and the people second.

One such self-server was the moneylender. A man with little in the way of a life and who we would have described nowadays as ‘not being good with people’ the moneylender had taken a modest family inheritance and set about making a tidy business of financing those in need and charging them for what he saw as his good nature. Though he was far from what people would think of as good. He made no connections, had no relationships and in an age where people had no time for the shortcomings of others the moneylender was a stranger to most. And so he was known only by his trade. Which didn’t bother him; people confused him.

In these days business was good; industrial injuries, strikes, too many people having too many children in cities not built for them. But still the moneylender’s money did not take him far. Growing up poor had led him to treat each penny as carefully as he could. So he bought no house, kept no social life and took no trips. He kept his money in his chest, at the foot of his bed; a small rickety single, in a room that measured 9ft by 9ft, a perfect square, with an open ceiling, so at night the moneylender would lie back in bed and look up into the rafters. The room had only two other pieces of furniture; a desk and a chair.

It was temporary, he told himself, when he surveyed the sparseness. Even after eight years. Eight years of cold baths, a landlady who paid him no mind, and fair to medium food served up in the local pub. The moneylender wasn’t good or happy or fulfilled even. He was just making money. It was automatic, and in a world where he didn’t see anything else to do he just kept on doing what he knew.

The good times, as they were, weren’t good for long. People stopped borrowing and those who did, paid it right back. People became more capable and the smarter ones took care of the ones who didn’t know better. And so the moneylender began to live off his own accumulated wealth. Which would have taken him some time to get to the bottom of, his life as basic as it was.

His last sources of revenue beyond this were the last desperate men. Then in the end there was one, his longest serving customer: the inventor. An optimistic man with more skill than sense or money made regular contributions that just about covered the interest on his borrowing. Any other moneylender would have called in his loans a long time ago, or just stopped lending to him. But the inventor was regular with his payments and the moneylender saw no problems in dealing with him. So their relationship continued.

The inventor had never been very successful. There had been the contraption that detected when a pan of water was boiling and promptly removed it from the heat. Which resulting in both getting rid of the much needed clean water and extinguishing the fire. There was also his line in local news distribution in which a young child would appear at your door and for a small fee could regale you with local goings on. The enterprise was incredibly profitable as the children learned they could earn more selling local gossip. The inventor eventually had to shut the business down after one particular teenager, who lived in close proximity to a brothel, discovered a talent for charcoal drawing.

The inventor was kind, which the moneylender didn’t notice, and methodical, which he did. And so each Friday morning the inventor would turn up with his weekly payment regular as clockwork. It was one such Friday morning when the moneylender was writing the amount into his ledger, the inventor pacing the room, that it happened. ‘I have a great idea,’ the inventor said to no one in particular. The moneylender looked over his shoulder and observed the inventor, standing in the middle of the room, looking through the small window. ‘Is that so?’

‘Yes. Yes,’ the inventor said, nodding his head vigorously, still looking out the window. ‘Do you want to hear it?’ he turned to look at the moneylender, his eyes lit up. ‘Not particularly,’ the moneylender said, returning to his ledger. The numbers in it gnawed at his stomach in what we would today recognise as anxiety, but which he would have known as melancholy. He snapped the book shut and turned to face the inventor who was standing again, hands on his hips, staring through the window, a huge dopey grin stuck on his face.

‘Let’s hear it then,’ said the moneylender, eager to have something to take his mind off his finances. The inventor, still gazing out the window gestured dramatically, spreading his arms wide in front of him. ‘Tiny! Pencils!’ He looked to the moneylender for his reaction. ‘Tiny pencils?’ the moneylender’s brow creased in confusion. ‘Yes!’ said the inventor, who came close to the desk. He reached behind him for a chair that wasn’t there and, seeing it wasn’t, crouched into a seating position so he was eye level with the moneylender.

‘Tiny Pencils!’ the inventor said seriously ‘Like pencils, but smaller.’ At this the inventor held up his index finger and thumb a few inches apart as if to demonstrate his point. He resumed his dopey grin and stared at the moneylender, waiting for a response. ‘What would be the point of that?’ the moneylender asked, leaning back in his chair. ‘Why would anyone want tiny pencils?’

‘Well, firstly,’ the inventor began ‘people with tiny hands. i.e. children. Who are learning to write, that’s a new thing. Also, people who can’t afford regular pencils. And lastly, for voting!’ the inventor said this last word very seriously indeed and frowned as though to emphasise how serious he was. ‘Voting?’ the moneylender asked. The inventor leaned in. ‘Yes. You see voting is quite a tense affair, people are apt to get angry, get into fights,’ he attempted to lean back but struggled to keep his balance. ‘I see that if we had tiny pencils when people were voting they would be much less likely to stab each other should said anger lead to a skirmish. It will contribute to the greater good.’ He lost his balance again and then righted himself, fixing the moneylender with a serious look, to show he meant business.

‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’ the moneylender exclaimed. ‘Firstly, they could always bring in a weapon if they wanted to fight. Secondly, people don’t care about voting and when they do the popular choice is always the most ill-formed choice (at this point the moneylender looked into the metaphorical camera of the story and raised his eyebrows to make his point clear), why would you want to make that any easier for them? Best they stab each other and let the weak minded die in the fray.’

The moneylender returned to his ledger and the inventor stood. ‘Oh no sir, you mark my words. Tiny pencils are going to change everything.’ The inventor stood still for a second and looked again out of the window before turning and marching out of the room without another word from either of them. ‘Idiot,’ the moneylender muttered before slamming his ledger shut once again. He lurched from his chair and walked to where the inventor had stood. Out the window he saw a grey courtyard, a woman washing clothes in the distance, heard the shrill shriek of children far off. The inventor was always seeing something just out of sight. The moneylender would like to have believed him an idiot, but no man that bright could be that stupid.

Many Friday mornings passed and as the inventor’s enthusiasm for his new venture grew so did the moneylender’s melancholy. It seemed to leak out of him now, in his words, making each remark as scathing as the last. He railed at the inventor time and again for his idiocy, his lack of plan, and for what the moneylender saw as an uninformed optimism. But still the inventor came back to borrow more, pay more interest, and regale the moneylender with his developments.

The day finally came when the moneylender would have to call in the inventor’s loans. Not for any financial need but out of pure spite. The inventor was stupid and reckless and the moneylender could no longer stand the sight of him. He was foolish, arrogant even, and a punishment, the moneylender felt, was long overdue. And so it came to pass one Friday morning that the moneylender stood from his desk, while the inventor was rhapsodising about the quality of wood and its impact on the sharpening of a pencil, and took him to task.

‘All of it back? Now?’ the inventor looked confused more than concerned. He put a hand on his hip and scratched his head with the other. His eyes searched, calculating quietly. ‘Well yes, I suppose I could.’ He looked to the moneylender. ‘Would you be able to give me a week?’ Stunned by his response, and a little taken back, the moneylender froze. ‘Well, yes, I suppose.’

‘Well then it shall be done,’ proclaimed the inventor, smiling. And without a word he sauntered out of the room, taking great care to close the door quietly on his way out. As he always had. The moneylender watched him go. But then he didn’t move. He was stuck. He didn’t know what he was doing. Or maybe he did, really, if he allowed himself to think on it. Which he did, in the seconds that followed.

By anyone’s measure he could have lived very basically for another year on what he had. But it wasn’t the money he wanted. It was the attention. Or worse than that, maybe it was that he wanted to be wanted, needed even. He wanted to not feel so redundant in an age that was progressing away from his simple way of doing things. The inventor, with all his energy and innocent bravado showed him his own uselessness. And the moneylender was confused as to whether he was cutting off the thing that made him feel bad or sending away his only connection to the world.

It was a few days later when the moneylender overheard the gossip. The inventor had secured contracts with some local businesses, quite the rich man he was going to be. Who would have thought it? Tiny pencils? Something so small and insignificant, so vital and so needed, by almost everyone.

As life went on and Friday loomed the moneylender’s mind wandered and he felt his own insignificance in the world grow. It wasn’t the inventor’s fault, this patch of gloom had followed the moneylender far and for far too long, but it had been growing and spreading. And now there was black fog too thick for him to see through. It didn’t take him long after that, to come to the decision.

Early on the Friday morning the moneylender sat on his bed, holding a thick length of rope in his hands. He squeezed it tightly till the roughness of the fibres made his hands sore. It should never have gotten to this, he thought, but then maybe there would only have ever been this for a man like him. For a man who could not get involved, who could only ever see life from far away. And now he was here he could think of no other destiny than this, than to depart from a place where he was no longer needed.

The moneylender took to his feet and made what he believed to be a noose in the rope. He stood on his chair and tied the other end of the rope around one of the exposed rafters. He slipped the noose over his neck and stood at the edge of the chair. Nothing else for it now, he thought, looking down at the floor below. He took a deep breath in. Yes. Any second now. No rush though. Anytime you like.

It was just then that the door swung open and the inventor burst in, early. ‘I have a great idea!’ he announced loudly. The shock made the moneylender lurch forward and he stumbled back to right himself on the chair. The moneylender looked at the inventor, and the inventor looked back at him. They froze for a moment. Then the moneylender gave the inventor an accusatory look.

The inventor frowned, indignant. ‘Oh come on man,’ the inventor gestured to the rope. ‘That’s not even a solid noose. And the,’ he rolled his eyes ‘that rope is going to slip the minute it feels your weight.’ The moneylender’s eyes flickered up to the rafters. ‘The best you’re going to do,’ the inventor continued, ‘is fall and break something. And then you’ll end up with some sort of terrible infection and they’ll be grossness and oozing. Think of the oozing! And then you’ll die. Very painfully no doubt. I can’t underestimate that.’

The moneylender stared at the inventor for a moment before the impact of his words took hold and he hurriedly removed the rope from around his neck. As he did so the whole of the rope slipped from the rafter above and on to the floor. The moneylender looked down at it, then back up at the inventor, who raised his eyebrows.

It was only then that the tension that had been piling in the moneylender’s body began to break, and his face crumpled. What had he been doing? He looked at the inventor and began to cry. The inventor looked right back at him, and nodded, to let him know he understood. The moneylender climbed down off the chair and as he stumbled on to the floor the inventor rushed to his side. As the moneylender fell to the floor the inventor sat down with him, cradling the man in his arms.

The inventor had come to ask the moneylender to be a permanent investor in his new business, to bring his accountancy skills to his new enterprise, to be a partner. He’d appreciated his financial support, but it was more than that. He’d listened to him when no one else would. He hadn’t felt of any use before, but now he did. And he had the moneylender to thank for that.

But that was all for later, for now the inventor would just hold his friend, then he would listen to him, and then he would try to make it all better. The tiny pencils could wait.

 

I wrote this for the 1st Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Which involved writing a short story in a week, under 2500 words. My genre was Historical Fiction and I had to include a money-lender and ‘redundant’ as a theme. To be honest this is probably one of the weirder things I’ve written. I’m not sure if it’s a black comedy, or just a comedy done with some bad taste. There’s a lot I like about it though. I didn’t place to get on to the next round, but I did get a Honourable Mention.

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