The city traffic raced as much at night as it did during the day, with speeding headlights chasing fading taillights. The Christmas decorations in the bar opposite twinkled with an urgency almost as frantic as the traffic. Rowan took a drag of his cigarette; the cold air made the paper stick to his lip and it stung when he pulled it away. He stood on wet concrete with the front door ajar behind him, he curled his toes, which had numbed in his damp socks. He licked the sore on his lip and squinted to get a better view of the bar. There was a party of some sort taking place. He doubted it was a Christmas party, it was only late November, but he kept an open mind. It was a work event, he could tell by the way the people were rigid, unfamiliar and politely reserved. It was mostly women and a few men in suits that were knocking drinks back like there was no tomorrow. Rowan wondered what he’d see if he stayed to watch the whole night play out. The notion fled his mind when he recalled the work parties he’d been to. It always ended with advances from middle management men on to women half their age. Sometimes it was entry level women on to men in middle management or indeed higher. He rolled his eyes and let his gaze drift into traffic once again. His phone pinged, it was a message from lostboy80989 and all it said was “dude, wtf?” Rowan locked the phone and slid it back into his pocket. He wanted solitude, just for a moment, just enough for some clarity. He hated the city but the traffic had a way of drowning out the silence and all that followed in it’s deafening path, like white noise.
“Are you coming up?” Eliza asked, her gentle voice cut through Rowans peace like a soft siren, alerting and pulling him back to the doorstep and back into his wet socks.
“In a few minutes,” he said and reached behind himself to grip her hand through the gap in the door. She squeezed back before ascending the stairs.
Rowan looked back at the bar and then above it. A new light had appeared. It didn’t blink like the Christmas lights or race like the beams of traffic. It was constant, bright and drew closer. It seemed to be aimed at him and then it became apparent that it was. It was a quiet thing with a low hum. It stopped twenty feet above him, lingered and then descended. It’s light almost blinded him and a small gust of air jetted out at him from its propellers. It was a delivery drone; he’d heard of them, but had never seen one before. When it dropped a small box, shot up, he was still dumbfounded by it, and paid no attention to the parcel until it had disappeared over the rooftops and into the night. Rowan flicked the remaining third of his cigarette. It hissed in a puddle. He kicked the small box, it didn’t explode so that was something. After a few minutes of deliberation, he picked it up. It was about six inches squared, he examined. It was wrapped in brown damp parcel paper and bound by white string. His name was handwritten on it in one corner. The handwriting was scruffy and his surname was misspelled. Instead of “Garbrandt” it said “Garbranned” the address was correct.
He took the box inside, unwound the string, pulled off the paper and opened the box. It was filled with shredded newspaper that he rumbled his fingers through to the bottom where he retrieved two pieces of paper. One was a note that read, “No expectations,” on the flip side it said “November 28th, 10:30pm, Riverside Social Club”. That was the day's date and a venue not far from Rowan’s house. He inspected the other piece of paper. It was a cheque, with all of Rowan’s details, even his surname was spelled correctly. The cheque was for fifty thousand. Rowans phone pinged again. It was Lostboy. This time he’d sent a picture. It was a cheque for fifty thousand made out to Richard Benilli. He’d never met Lostboy, they’d only spoken online for six months or so. The thought of the parcel being a prank from Lostboy didn’t make sense. There was no way he could know Rowans full name or personal details. They exchanged a few rapid texts, but they were both as perplexed as each other. Lostboy asked to meet at the social club, he said it was an hour and a half drive for him but he had time to make it. Rowan had reservations, but he needed to know what was going on. Eliza couldn’t know what he was doing, she’d never allow him to go alone, but he didn’t want to bring her as he had no idea what he was walking in to. He smoked another cigarette, thought up a reasonable excuse and then went inside.
“Hey,” she said from under the bed sheets. She flung Rowans side over and patted the mattress. “Come on, get cosy it’s cold”.
“I wish I could.” He sat down beside her. “I have to go in to work, Neil called, there’s some kind of emergency, I’ll know more when I get there”
“Can’t it wait until morning? The rain is really coming down out there.” She said, she was right, the rain hammered so hard against the window they had to raise their voices.
“You know what Neil’s like."”
Eliza sighed, but didn’t argue. Instead she wrapped her warm hand around his. They were in a tough spot financially and Rowans work was hard to the mind, body and soul, but he was pushing through and grinding each day for them. Rowan got his jacket and boots on, kissed her forehead and left. The Riverside social club was a mile away, but Rowan was forced to walk it in the downpour. He had enough fuel to get to work in the morning, but that was all. With no money, driving was no option. He had a fifty grand cheque in his pocket, but that in no way meant he had fifty grand in his pocket. When he left he kept the wet socks on. There were so many holes in the soles of his boots it seemed frivolous to change them, in the streets, he wished he had. He wished he’d dried his feet, put fresh socks on and clingfilmed over the top of them. The water felt so icy when it seeped through the boots, his wet clothes dangled from his thin frame, he kept putting one foot in front of the other, such is life, he thought. One foot at a time, one hour, one day, one week, one month, all is accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other. If this was all for a prank, he didn’t regret the walk, he wanted to know who was behind it and why?
The Riverside social club stood dimly lit in a carpark alone. It was like a beacon in the night, a haven against the elements. Rowan forgot about the cheque, the prank and the overall purpose. He had to get inside. He reached the door, pulled it open, stepped inside and felt the warmth fall over him like a cotton blanket. He stood a moment in the lobby with his eyes closed. He felt the heat rush up his neck and burn his cheeks. A burning rush of comfort that tingled. He curled his toes, but they were numb still. His hands weren’t, they were on fire, a cold fire made of small razor blades. Yet still, the warmth was nice. He opened his eyes and a new warmth rushed over him, one of embarrassment, there were ten, maybe fifteen people looking back at him from the waiting room. A mix of men and women ranged from eighteen to sixty.
They were lowlifes, have-nots, the disenfranchised, users, renegades, dreamers. Rowan knew all too well that it was a crowd he belonged to be boxed in with and felt no real shame about it, just eager like the rest.
Another man walked in. He had a hoodie that was soaked through, no jacket and a car that he couldn’t lock with his key from the range he was at. Eventually he gave up and appeared a little embarrassed as he looked to the gazing eyes. “You get a cheque too?” another man asked.
“Yeah, all of you too?”
It went like that until almost ten thirty. The lost wandered in one by one, each looking more desperate than the last. The number of people got to thirty-two until a thirty-third came screeching to a halt outside in a Ford. He burst into the lobby in a Hawaiian shirt peppered with mustard stains with long greasy hair that jetted out from under a ballcap. It was Lostboy, and Rowan knew it. His online persona aligned perfectly with his image. “You all here for that fifty grand?” he asked with a smirk. “Damn.” He shook his head. “I can’t wait to be rich.” He was heckled by some others, but he was overall unphased and brushed them off. He was seen to be the idiot, the joker or jester and was too late to fit into one of the cliques that had formed. “Where’s Rowaboat91?” he asked. Rowan shrugged as the others did. He was embarrassed to be the man’s online friend, let alone a real acquaintance now and he still wasn’t convinced that Lostboy wasn’t a part of the prank. He saw Lostboy pull his phone from his pocket, he began to type so Rowan swiftly turned his phone to silent before it pinged. Lostboy sent the message, his eyes and ears scanned for a ping or a dull buzz, but there was nothing. Lostboy stood alone from the small crowd and Rowan was glad to have evaded detection. The room descended once again into a trade of conspiratorial conjunction and divisive speculation. Rowan kept a low profile.
The waiting room door opened, and the group hushed. A lady stepped in, mid fifties with a wide smile.
“Welcome” she said. “I know you’re all wondering what’s happening. That will all be answered very shortly. In the room behind me is free tea and coffee. Grab a refreshment and a seat and your host will be with you shortly.” She finished the words and was pelted by a hoard of questions and demands but her smile remained. “All will be answered, have patience and a tea or coffee.” She stood aside and everyone shuffled past her. It was a big room, bright with white clinical lighting and rows of metal chairs. It smelled of strong sanitiser, it had the ambience of an AA meeting, and the refreshments went untouched. The crowd raced for a seat. Lostboy approached, he sat beside Rowan and had a sour look about him. He was as immature as his online alias, but online he was funny, a Peter Pan figure, free and wild. But in person he appeared to be a loser, Rowan thought. It made sense to him now, the signs were there in the private messages, now looking at him Rowan realised he couldn’t have pulled a prank like this. If he couldn’t then who could? Was it even a prank? Rowan hadn’t seriously considered that there may be fifty grand on the line.
“Crazy right?” Lostboy said. “I thought it was a prank at first. Now it makes sense…”
Rowan’s attention switched toward him “What?”
The fire escape door swung open and then slammed. It echoed through the hall and demanded everyone’s focus. A man walked in, short, stocky, well dressed but his face was weathered, and one eye was milky blue, the other was brown. He was maybe sixty or seventy, he walked with confidence with his chin high and his chest out. He reached the middle of the room, ran his hand through his stubble and then scanned the crowd as they did him. “We’re missing five” the lady with the wide smile said.
“Less than we thought.” He nodded, much like his presence his voice was captivating, it was deep, gravelly and he had a common accent that didn’t at all match his clothes. He pushed out his bottom lip and strode back and forth with his hands pressed halfway into his trouser pockets. “I grew up in a flat with a drug addict mother, a gang affiliated father and seven siblings. I was the youngest.” He said and kept on pacing. He had the rooms undivided attention, Rowan couldn’t break his sight off him, even for a moment. “I was neglected, picked on, pushed around, I had no one to turn to. No one to cry to, no one to dream with or laugh with or seek advice from. I grew up alone in a crowded house. One of my elder brothers was watching the telly one night and I snuck down, crept through the door and sat in the corner behind the sofa without him detecting me. That’s the night I discovered boxing, not only boxing but Muhammed Ali, the greatest to ever do it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, how could a man move that way?” he threw two jabs, a right, a hook and weaved before turning to the crowd. “I was dumbfounded. My brother found me behind the sofa and struck me so hard I couldn’t walk right for a week. I was six years old.” He frowned. “Didn’t matter though. I was used to it, but now I couldn’t wait to recover, I’d found a passion. There were no expectations for me, nada. Not from a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a peer, nothing. When I got better, I went outside picked two lampposts, I sprinted between them every damn day, rain sleet or snow, no sick days.” He smiled, the others did too.” One of the other dads came out of the house one day when I was eight or nine. He gave me a bottle of water and said -why do you run here all the time kid?- I said I’m getting fit sir, I’m gonna be Muhammed Ali. -Muhammed Ali?- he asked -there’s already one of those, you should be the first you-.”
The crowd nodded with him. “He was right, and that’s what I did. I worked my teens at a breakers yard to pay for boxing classes, I was okay, nothing special and nobody had any expectations for me, but I did. I fought every amateur fight I could. I wasn’t the most talented but I was the hardest worker. I did that for years and landed a shot at the big time. We’re talking Ali legacy, Tyson cash. I could’ve moved out of that dump of a town and never looked back. Ding! Round one, I dominated. Round two, the same, round three, fade to black. I woke up six hours after surgery for a brain haemorrhage, no sight in my left eye and my dreams shattered. Doc told me I’d be alright, but I’d never fight again. Round four, square one, no expectations. Round five, depression, round six, drug abuse, round seven, drug abuse, round eight, depression, round nine, suicide attempt. Round ten, bootstraps, round eleven, realisation, round twelve, action. I became a coach for the best of the best. I’m a champion maker.” He pounded his chest, his eyes reddened with tears he held back. “No expectations. Ever. You make your own. I believe that. Not all get the stroke of insight I was so lucky to have, so here you are.” He folded his arms and took the time to look at every person in the eye. “A year ago I made a thread on a forum, what would you do to change your life if you had fifty grand?” Every jaw in the room dropped. Rowan recalled the thread vaguely; it was a fleeting kind of moment and he commented and never thought about it again. He looked at Lostboy, that’s where he first saw the name, he replied below his comment. Now Lostboy was nodding, he’d figured it out.
“My team and I monitored the thread. You’re all here because something about you stuck out and struck me. We ran checks on you. You’ve all had a bad start and never had a real shot in life. I believe you all to be bright individuals, even those that never showed up, but, as the card said, I have no expectations. Do what you please but understand this, this isn’t a handout.” He paused for effect. “Not a handout, this is a hand up, if you want it. I won’t be monitoring you; you’ll never see me again. All I can offer is advice, lift yourselves from your current stations, be better, be great if you can and pass on this opportunity that I have passed on to you. Be a champion maker, if you so choose that path.” He pulled a chair and sat facing the group. “Denise wants to go back and get a journalism degree, go girl. Adam wants to start a landscaping business and escape his nine to five. Pam wants to start a charity, Tom wants to coach rugby, Rowan wants to escape the city that crushes him, and Richard wants to retire his sick mother.” Rowan looked to Lostboy, or Richard, his lip trembled, and his eyes welled. “You can do these things. Hold yourselves accountable. You can’t win every round… but you can win the fight. The crowd have no expectations for losers like us, show ‘em what you’re worth, there’s enough in this world for you. Good luck.”
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