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So near and yet so far... from $20,000

Who’d have thought it would be so difficult to give it away?

By Jon McKnightPublished 3 years ago 10 min read

You’d be surprised how many people let $20,000 slip right through their hands on that otherwise uneventful morning.

One after another they picked it up, decided they didn’t want it, then threw it down again, some of them contemptuously.

Not that they couldn’t have used $20,000.

The Wall Street trader in the Savile Row suit didn’t need it as much as the others, perhaps, and would probably have squandered it anyway on a single bottle of vintage Champagne to impress his co-workers.

But the car thief who picked it up next could have used the $20,000 to take a month off, giving both himself and the residents of his favourite hunting ground a welcome break and - who knows? - he might have decided, upon reflection, that a life of crime wasn’t for him after all.

I almost felt sorry for the spoilt little girl whose mother made her put it down again, saying it was dirty and she didn’t know where it had been.

But just like the others - and if I’d had a dollar for everyone who picked up the $20,000 and put it down again that morning, I’d have had, well, 143 dollars - the little girl lost her chance.

I blame me, and their attitudes.

Very few people in their right minds would pick up $20,000, weigh it in their hands, then toss it carelessly aside and walk away from it - “obvs”, as my young friends tell me - so I’d taken the precaution of disguising the $20,000 as a little black book... in this case, a rather stylish notebook from Moleskine.

Some might argue that it looked like a million dollars anyway, with its sleek, hard covers, rounded corners, a black ribbon bookmark and a neat elastic band to keep it closed, yet to all but one of those who held it in their hands that morning, it was nothing more than a twenty-dollar notebook, not twenty-thousand life-changing dollars.

If you’re wondering how I know all this, or you’re about to write me off as the world’s worst butterfingers for letting all that money slip through my own hands, let me explain.

I only know about the losers who could have gone home $20,000 the richer that day because I sat there all morning and watched them.

And I know what was in the little black book, too, because I placed it there.

It needed to be somewhere it could easily be found, so I put the book on a bench in a public square where tens of thousands of people would be sure to pass it.

If I’d wanted just anyone to find it, I could have put a Post-It on the cover saying “Pick me up - I’m worth $20,000!”, but that would have been way too obvious, and spoilt my plan.

No, I wanted the $20,000 to be found, for sure, but only by the right person.

I didn’t care if that person happened to be black or white or yellow or brown or red, male or female, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, observant or atheist, fat or thin, ugly or beautiful.

But they did need to appreciate beautiful things - starting with Moleskine notebooks - as well as loving words, caring for others, and being more than averagely altruistic.

Most people who picked up the book out of idle curiosity, or barely-concealed greed, were likely to fall at the first hurdle, as did the preppy young man who paused halfway through his Sub and sat down beside the book, looking around to see if anyone was watching.

Once he was sure no-one was, he grabbed the book, slipped off the elastic band, and opened the front cover.

As any Moleskine owner knows, the fly-leaf famously bears the legend “In case of loss, please return to...” with a space for an address then a line below saying “As a reward: $...”.

It’s a simple and thoughtful mechanism that’s resulted in countless notebooks and journals being returned to their owners from all over the world, many of the finders no doubt motivated by whatever reward the owner had offered.

Which is why the look of anticipation on the preppy’s face turned to one of disgust when he saw what was written in my little black book.

Instead of giving an address for it to be returned to, I’d simply written “Me” and added “Please read on for further details”.

And after “As a reward: $”, I’d written “Your virtue will be its own reward”.

He couldn’t have put it down faster if the book had bitten him - and the words he muttered under his breath were, mercifully, rendered inaudible by a sudden gust from across the square.

A well-dressed middle-aged woman looked like a possible candidate for enrichment as she picked it up thoughtfully and looked as if she might be just the person to want to reunite the lost book with its owner.

To my grave disappointment - and, hers, if she ever gets to read this - she looked at the fly-leaf inscription then asked, rhetorically, of the pigeons at her feet: “What an absolute cheek! Why should I pay all that postage to send your book back, you careless cretin?”

A student probably wanted the book for itself - at least she had good taste - but as soon as she saw someone had already written inside, she put it down again and wandered off, hoping perhaps that the next one she found would still be blank.

An expensive error for one as incurious as she was impecunious, for if she’d only had the patience to take it home and read it, this confession would have had a different ending.

The crack dealer didn’t spend long with the book - his time was money, after all - and he slammed it back down on the bench after he’d flicked through it, checked the pocket inside the back flap, and ascertained there was no sheaf of bills to be had.

The man in the loud jacket with a voice to match didn’t mince his words. To anyone who’d listen, though there were no takers that morning, he declared: “Virtue is its own reward? Not in this neighbourhood, it isn’t! You gotta do a lot better than that if you want your book back.”

And with that, both he and his chance of a fortune that day were gone.

One of the pigeons hopped up on to the bench and picked at the book momentarily, realised it offered no nutritional benefit, and fluttered slowly across the square just as a tantrumming toddler tossed his hot-dog away to the benefit of opportunistic beaks.

And then she came.

Seventy and under-fed, her clothes looked they came from charity shops (and that was being charitable) while her shoes, once elegant, were no longer weatherproof, let alone comfortable.

She hobbled a little, her hips hurting her as she walked past the bench, her gaze fixed on the ground in case she could find the odd quarter or two that would pay for her next coffee.

Of all the things she so obviously needed, a posh new notebook wasn’t one of them. But a glint of sunlight bouncing off the black cover caught her eye and she stopped, a few feet past the bench.

Wincing with pain as she turned, the woman hobbled back, sat gratefully on the bench, and got her breath back before giving her attention to my bait.

“What a beautiful book,” she said softly to herself as she cradled it in her hands, as gently as one might a fledgeling fallen from its nest. “Someone will be really sorry to have lost this.”

Her manners were somewhat finer than her appearance, her diction precise, her eyes sharp, and her heart - as I discovered - warm and caring.

She recognised the book for what it was - one of Moleskine’s finest - but unlike everyone else that day, saw a value in it that went beyond the intrinsic and the immediate.

“Whoever’s lost this must have loved it,” she continued. “Look at the handwriting. And the book’s almost filled. I wish I could get it back to them.”

She closed the book again, reverently, slipped it into her tattered carrier-bag, and, groaning with the effort, eased herself off the bench and headed, several quarters short of what would have been a welcome coffee, back to her ill-heated home in the project.

The book arrived in my mailbox, a little later than I’d expected, but the array of small-value stamps stuck to it bore witness to the difficulty the woman must have had in raising even the postage to mail it back.

And yet she had. The book was wrapped in purple tissue-paper, years old, then packaged in stout brown paper with my address written neatly on the front.

The woman had clearly gone to a lot of trouble. And there was a covering letter inside in the same fine hand.

“I trust you’ll forgive me,” she’d written, “but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist reading your book, and then I found I couldn’t put it down.

“I was truly fascinated to read about your life, your loves, your likes, your dislikes, your literary background and your appreciation of books.

“If we had met 50 years ago, well... but perhaps I shouldn’t go into that. Even in these permissive days. But I felt a meeting of minds, a shared joy of words, and a passion for books and for writing.

“You’ve been so much more successful at it than I have. My only novel was what one might call a modest success - so modest, in fact, that the royalties didn’t even cover my overdraft - but I knew enough about the craft to appreciate good writing when I saw it.

“Which is why that notebook, the notebook you left on the bench, spoke to me in so many ways. Your writing grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages until, with a jolt, I came to that paragraph on page 64.

“It was late at night, and I thought I was seeing things. So I read the paragraph again, three times all-told, and couldn’t believe the words I was reading. ‘You have won $20,000,’ it said, ‘and you deserve it.

“When I’d recovered from the shock, I read on: ‘Unlike everyone else who will have picked up this book this morning, you’re the only one who didn’t see it as something you could steal, or sell - and unlike them, you didn’t protest at the cost of sending it back, or the lack of reward, and you didn’t curse me for being stupid enough to lose it. Instead, you appreciated the book for its beauty, were drawn to my writing, and were concerned above all with returning it to me if you possibly could. I’ve done well in life, materially at least, and I wanted to share my good fortune with someone. But do not mistake this for a random act of kindness. Far from it! I knew that the right person would come along and appreciate the book, while everyone else would pick it up, think there was nothing in it for them, and heave it aside. They wouldn’t have been interested in reading about me, or my thoughts, though if they had, they’d have won the $20,000 instead. So that’s why I decided to bury the good news so far into the book in a place they’d never look. To them, the previous 63 pages were a stranger’s words, probably boring, that made the book useless to them as they couldn’t use it or sell it. But to you, my precious reader, my words were a pleasure - or, at least, interesting enough to keep you captivated until you reached the real purpose of my book: to make a stranger, and a very special stranger, $20,000 better off. Enjoy!’.”


About the Creator

Jon McKnight

I have left Vocal.

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