This is part 5 of a 6-part short story I wrote a while back. It’s written from the perspective of Bala Davies, a fictional woman living in the Welsh town of Y Gelli. Please read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 first.
Nate wasn’t in the shop the next day, so I was worried that it might take a little while to set the plan in motion. Fortunately, he stopped by before closing, which was exactly when I needed him anyway.
“Shall we go for a little stroll?” I said to him, leading him out of the store. “I have something I want to show you.”
“You just want a free meal at Gilliam’s, don’t you?” he said.
I cocked my head. “Perhaps. Hadn’t even thought of that. This is even more of a treat.”
We walked north along Bell Bank Road and turned left on Lion Street. I was trying to avoid the main square. Just before we reached the far side of Addyman Books, I halted Nate with an arm to his chest. “Hold on.”
I peered around the corner at the far side of the square. I smiled. The stage was set.
I pushed Nate forward. “Peak around the corner. What do you see?”
“Nothing, really. Everything’s closed up for the day.”
“The beggar. You see the beggar?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s the same guy that you yelled at me about the other day.”
“Exactly. We’re going to follow him.”
Nate stood up straight and looked down at me. He was a good head taller than me. “Bala, this is a little weird.”
I pushed him in the chest. “Keep your eyes on the beggar! Any time now.”
Nate raised his eyebrows but didn’t protest. He poked his head past Addyman’s while I kept watch, shifting from one foot to the other, smiling at the odd passerby. I must have looked as giddy as a lamb in spring.
After a few minutes, Nate said, “Okay, he’s getting up.”
I looked at the beggar. He was gathering his things in a satchel. “When he moves, we follow. At a safe distance.”
“We’re not going to do anything to the old man, are we?” Nate said exasperatedly.
“Of course not. Now go. He’s moving.”
We crept around the corner as the beggar, shrouded in a long, brown, hooded robe, shuffled south along Castle Lane. One leg dragged a bit behind the other. I pulled on Nate’s sleeve. “We need to get closer,” I whispered.
We crossed the square and followed the beggar from about 20 yards away. When he got to the bend in the lane, he turned off the road and walked up the small hill that led to Hay Castle. “Castle” is a bit of a strong word, because it’s really just a big house made of stone, but Booth insists upon calling it a castle. He owns the place.
The beggar disappeared behind some shrubs on the hill, and I tugged Nate forward. “We’re going to miss it!”
Without answering, I dashed off the lane before the bend and ran around the west side of the embankment, Nate close on my heels. I hadn’t had this much excitement in years. We reached a good position, an angle that allowed us to see what the beggar was doing behind the shrubs. He was just barely visible in the dim light. “Okay, watch.”
The beggar was loosening the front of the robe. When he reached a certain point, he pulled the whole thing over his head. Nate slapped me on the back. “Bala!” he said, looking at the ground. “I’m not going to watch an old man get naked.”
“It’s not a man,” I said. “And she’s not naked.”
Nate looked up. I heard him catch his breath. Holding the tattered old robe was none other than Elsi Bennett, her raven hair swimming over her shoulders. She was wearing a grey tank top that revealed just a hint of skin above the evergreen drawstring pants I saw her in so often. She removed headphones from her ears and took a portable music player out of her pocket. She balled them up in the robe and stuffed them into her satchel before gingerly making her way back down the hill.
Nate clasped my arm. “She’s the beggar?”
“She’s the beggar.”
“How do you know all this?”
I rolled my eyes. “We’re not done. Follow me.”
I’m actually surprised that Elsi didn’t see us, creeping in the dusk like schoolchildren. She must be getting lazy.
She strode back up Castle Lane and turned onto High Town at the square. A minute later she was at the front door of the Reed. She looked inside, tried the door—which was locked—and rustled around in her bag.
“She’s trying to break into your shop!” Nate whispered.
A hand on his forearm told him it was okay.
Elsi extracted a mobile phone from her satchel and dialed a number, tapping her foot on the steps as she waited. She said a few words and then hung up. A minute later, the light came on in the bookstore and Kyffin appeared at the door. He gave her a hug and ushered her inside.
“Does your husband know?”
“That she’s a beggar?”
“She works for him.”
“Ah, Nate,” I said, patting him on the knee. “I think we’d better have a drink.”
Kilverts was empty, so we ordered two ales and nestled into a table in the back. I watched Nate ruminate over what he had just seen as he took a few sips.
“Is it coming together?”
He shook his head. “Elsi’s a beggar. That much I get. I don’t know why—a pretty girl like her could be doing anything. How old is she?”
“Yeah. Around my age. But I don’t understand how she would work for your husband—are they in business together somehow?”
I nodded. “You could say that. I mean, I meant what I said—she works for him. But she’s not his only employee.”
“There are other people who do this for him?”
I nodded and wiped foam from my lip. “Sure. Lots. But not during the year. Just for the festival. That’s how this whole thing started.”
Nate gestured toward himself with his hands. “The whole story. Out with it.”
I swallowed a mouthful of ale and waved at the owner for two more. “Okay, the whole story. I’ve told you that after the wind farm went defunct, Kyffin went on a month-long drunk that was nearly the end of him. He was the embarrassment of the whole town. I tried to help him, but half the time I didn’t even know where he was, and I had just opened the shop.
“One morning after getting hammered with a few roughnecks from Llanigon, Kyffin tries to stumble home but doesn’t quite make it. He ends up passing out in the middle of the square, empty pint glass still in hand. As he tells it, he woke up hours later to find the glass full of change. Our little town gets a lot of tourists, as you know, and they had taken pity on the unwitting beggar.
“I have to give Kyffin due credit—he didn’t go spend the money on more booze. Instead, he stumbled home and stomped up to the attic. Didn’t come out until well after dinner was cold.
“Finally he came into the bedroom, where I was getting ready to fall asleep, and told me he had a failproof plan for getting rich. Showed me all these calculations and diagrams—frankly, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I told him the money looked good, but what was this all about?
“‛Beggars!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m going organize a group of beggars!’
“I turned off the light and told him I wanted nothing to do with it. But he kept talking. Kept saying how it could make us a cartload of money without any risk or investment. He’d create a network of beggars in the streets of Y Gelli, and he’d take a 20% cut of whatever they brought in.
“I remember shooting up in bed and turning on the light. ‘Beggars don’t need you!’ I yelled.
“I’ll grant Kyffin a little bit of genius, because his explanation made sense. He told me that beggars don’t need him, but where there’s one beggar, there’s another beggar nearby, cutting into profits. His idea was to position his beggars so they maximized their daily take, and he’d be the enforcer, keeping any unsanctioned beggars off the streets. He already had great connections with the local police and government from his days on the wind farm—plus, you’ve seen his charm—so he’d make sure they didn’t bother with his employees.
“He was most excited about the annual festival. Back then it attracted about 30,000 people, which is huge in itself, and it’s more than doubled in size since then. During that time he wanted to have a vast network of beggars at key positions throughout the town and surrounding area to take advantage of the deep pockets of the visitors. It’s not cheap to get here, as you know.”
Nate spoke for the first time since I started talking. “So where does he get the beggars? If he’s using beautiful girls like Elsi, obviously he isn’t just taking any old guy off the street.”
I wagged a finger at him. “Again, this is pretty clever. Employing ‘real’ beggars—homeless people—is a risk for Kyffin. They have nothing to lose, so they might walk out at any time. Plus, they’re likely to have quite a bit of experience conning people out of an extra coin or two. These are people who have probably had to steal multiple times in their lives just to survive. They wouldn’t hesitate to steal from Kyffin. Too risky.
“So every year, about a month before the festival, Kyffin places ads in newspapers in Swansea and Cardiff and other big cities. He targets young people, kids just out of college, people looking to make a quick quid and move on. It’s an appealing idea—work for 10 days during the biggest literary festival in the world and walk away with 800 pounds in your pocket.”
Nate looked at me wide-eyed. “They make that much in a week and a half?”
I nodded. “Sometimes more. Usually people give them food too, and they sleep in tents, so they don’t have any expenses. They usually linger in the bookstores for a few days afterward. Then they head home and forget about the whole thing.”
“Well, like any beggar, what’s stopping them from taking off with all the money?”
“Part of their arrangement is that they have to deposit 100 pounds and their national ID cards with Kyffin when they arrive. So even if they walk out—which several have—Kyffin makes an easy 100.”
Nate nodded. “Makes sense. He really thought this through. Where does Elsi fit into this? Why is she still here a month after the festival?”
“Oh, Elsi’s been here for a couple years. She showed up for the festival two years ago. She had just graduated from acting school. Claimed that she was more interested in the method-acting experience than the money.” I rolled my eyes. “I can’t believe I bought that load of crap. Anyway, Kyffin took a liking to her, and he made her his main employee. It’s just her and a weekend guy during the year.”
“You really don’t like her, do you?”
I shrugged. “She’s not that bad. I just think it’s a little odd that a young girl like her would take such a liking to my husband. Seems suspicious.”
“You think she’s after something else?”
“Maybe. I don’t know what she’d take, though. I own the Reed, and Kyffin doesn’t have that much saved up. I just don’t trust her.”
Nate looked around the room, which was still empty, and said in a low voice, “Do they…?”
“Do they shag? Heavens no! Maybe he’d like to, but no. I’d hear it. Walls are too thin to let something like that get past me.”
Nate gave me a sheepish grin. “Just curious.”
“No worries. I’ve wondered the same thing. After all, Kyffin was an attractive man in his day.”
There was a lull in conversation after this. I knew what I wanted to say next, but I felt awkward about it. Finally I took a swig of ale and cut to the point.
“I really value your friendship, Nate. I don’t want to mess it up.” I nervously tucked a curl of hair behind my ear.
He looked confused, then concerned. “Me too. I mean, don’t worry. I’m glad you told me all of this. Makes this town even more…I don’t know, romantic.”
I smiled. “Good. That kind of plays into what I want to ask of you.”
“Would you—and feel free to say no, obviously, that’s totally fine, no problem.”
“Out with it, Bala.”
“Would you consider trying to date Elsi?”
Nate sat back in his chair. He cocked his head to one side. “Is this a trick question?”
I laughed. “No! I mean it. Aren’t you attracted to her?”
He blushed. “Yeah, yes, of course. She’s very pretty. I just assumed….”
His cheeks flushed an even deeper red. “I kind of assumed that you…that you had the hots for me.”
I stared at him for a second and then burst out laughing. He gave me a bewildered look before starting to chuckle as well. Slowly at first, and then just as hard as me. I leaned over the table, trying to catch my breath.
“You thought…you…you thought I had the ‘hots’ for you? I’m old enough to be your mother!”
Nate gave me a stern look. “Bala, I know how old you are. You could not be my mother.”
I conceded that point. “Fine. But still. You’re cute and all, but there’s a seven-year age gap between us. And I’m married!”
“Unhappily married. I’ve had married women come onto me before.”
“I’m happy! Sure, my marriage isn’t perfect, but that’s because Kyffin’s a wanker. We go through good periods and bad periods. Although, most of the good ones were at the beginning.”
“Wait a minute,” Nate said, eyebrows furrowed in thought. “So that’s what this is all about.”
“You want me to date Elsi so you’ll be the sole apple of your husband’s eye once again. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“It is not!” I pouted. “I want to get back at him.”
Nate smiled knowingly. “No no no. You want to get Elsi out of the picture, and now you have this dashing, handsome American who’ll do the job.”
I realized that he was having a good time with this. “Is that so wrong?”
He shook his head. “Not at all. I’ll do it. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“She could break your heart and take all your money and leave you on the street.”
Nate smiled. “At least I’d be surrounded by books.”
Here is the finale!