Jem let the heat of the shop wrap around her like a blanket. She stared at the rows of bright packets. Saliva filled her mouth.
“Have a nice evening!” The door swished as the customer left. Jem’s fingers caressed warm metal in the pocket of her jeans.
Coins. But not enough.
She headed for the door. Claws of cold air reached out to claim her as it opened.
“Did you forget something?”
Fingers gripped her arm, pulled her round.
Three packets of fig rolls fell from underneath her jacket, thudding softly as they landed, one after the other, on the linoleum.
“Cat got your tongue, eh? God, I’m so sick of you lot. Bloody freeloaders, think you can come here and just help yourself to everything.”
Jem kept her eyes down, letting the words wash over her head, like a wave. Hold your breath. Stay calm.
“I’m calling the police.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone.
“No,” she looked up. “Please.” Not that. “I’m– I’m sorry.” She looked up, pleading.
“Oh, so you speak English, eh? Well that’s something!” The shopkeeper peered at her. “Here, how old’re you?”
Jem didn’t answer. His mouth was hidden by a huge, ginger beard, but his eyes had a touch of kindness around the edges. She was short, and skinny, and it was a long time since her face had seen makeup. With luck…
“Oh for chrissakes. When’d you last eat?” He shook his head. “I’m too soft, that’s my problem. Here,” he picked up one of the packets and thrust it at her. “They’ll be damaged, anyway. Now get out of my shop.”
“Thanks,” mumbled Jem, blinking. She stepped into the night before he could change his mind.
“Haha, lookit this guy, Jem.” Her friend, Kev, rubbed his hands together, more out of habit than of any hope of generating warmth.
Jem squinted across the road where a bearded man was running, huffing and puffing. A yellow light blinked in the distance.
“E’s missed that cab,” said Kev. “He’ll be lucky now, this time of day.”
“Yeah,” muttered Jem, watching as the man leant against a lamppost and reached into his back pocket for his phone.
“What a muppet! Now he’s dropped his mobile!”
Instinct had her legs moving before her brain registered what was happening. The man was lying on the pavement by the time she got there.
“Shit, he’s had a heart attack. Kev, call an ambulance!” Jem thrust the dropped phone at Kev as she started chest compressions. A black chuckle bubbled up as she remembered her army instructor’s advice: ‘Use Another One Bites The Dust by Queen for the right rhythm. Keep it in your head, though.’
“Why’d you care? He’s probably a gonner. As if he’d give a fig for one of us.”
“JUST DO IT!”
She heard Kev mutter something, but then, a few seconds later, she also heard him say ‘ambulance’.
“He did give a fig,” she muttered, between presses.
A story inspired by Aesop’s Fable of The Lion and the Mouse. It also seems appropriate, given current events, to remember the importance of a little compassion.