Is it ever right to keep something you found ...
Published: August 3, 2008
Updated: August 5, 2008
Is it ever right to keep something you found?
When I was about twelve years old a gang of us were asked to help clear out a house one Saturday afternoon. The old guy had died and left it to his nephew, who wanted to sell it as soon as possible. We were coerced into helping him with the promise of ‘a few quid.’
It was a little cottage on the edge of town, and it reflected the age of the old guy. The paint was cracked and peeling, the garden overgrown, the windows caked with dirt. The furniture was old even before the Arc was built.
But even so, I was really surprised by how ungrateful the nephew was. Loud and arrogant, he moaned and whined about everything. It was as if he’d lost something instead of gaining a wonderful gift.
But for all his macho posturing he wouldn’t go up and check the attic, muttering something about getting his new suit dirty. So, being the smallest, I was volunteered. I was physically lifted up and flipped through the hatch.
The only light in the attic came from a small window in the roof, giving a grey and eerie glow to the sinister shadows that seemed to shimmer quietly all around me, and the rafters had cobwebs the size of fishing nets hanging from them.
I’d only gone in about a foot or two when my knee cracked against something. It was an old biscuit tin. I picked it up and scurried across to the window where I cautiously prised the lit off, and I know I gasped out loud. The tin was full of five-pound notes.
I was stunned. My first reaction was to call down to the others below, but for some reason I didn’t. I justified this later by telling myself that the old guy wouldn’t want his prat of a nephew to have any of it.
As I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt at the time I knew I couldn’t conceal it on me, so I had to find another way to get it out of the house without being seen. I tried to force the window open, but the hinges were blobs of rust and the wood bent as I pushed it. Eventually I managed to create a gap, but there was no way I could force the big biscuit tin through it.
I needed something smaller to put the money in.
‘What’re you doing up there?’
I nearly cracked my head on the rafters when the head appeared in the hatch. The nephew was coming up after all.
‘Look out,’ I shouted. ‘The spider’s right by your hand!’
There was a girly yelp and a crash, followed by profuse cursing as he fell off the chair.
‘C’mon,’ he yelled up at me. ‘We haven’t all day to be farting around up there.’
I looked around frantically. I knew I would never get another chance to get back into this house, so it was now or never!
I turned a crate on its side, pulled some boxes over, and then I saw the old vase by the hatch. I grabbed it and checked it against the gap in the window. With a push it would squeeze through. I took a handful of the notes and bundled them up as tight as I could then pushed them down hard into the vase. They went in easily enough, so I repeated the process until the vase was packed as tight as a duck’s eyelid.
Unfortunately there was still quiet a few notes left – I’d only managed to cram about half into the vase. I scrambled around to find something else, and there it was! The twin vase! I was delighted. I filled it as well.
Through the little window I could see the gutter about ten feet below me. Gingerly I pushed the first vase through and held onto it until I was sure it would slide slowly enough to get caught in the chute. It clattered noisily over the slates, giving a few clatters along the way, and to my relief it rolled into the gutter and stayed there.
The nephew was swearing up at me again so this time I had to move a bit quicker. And again the second vase slid in behind the first.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he asked when I dropped down out of the attic.
‘You’re looking awful shifty. What’ve you been doing up there?’
It was as if he was reading my mind.
‘Did you see the size of that spider?’ I lied and pushed past him.
I didn’t sleep that night. Frantic thoughts raced through my mind. I hadn’t even thought about how I was going to explain all that money.
Even though she had eight kids and we were living on a busman’s wages, my mother was fiercely religious. She would be mortified if she thought one of us had stolen as much as a lollipop, never mind a tin full of money.
She’d ask ‘What would Jesus do?’
Then she’d make me take it back. But that was something I’d worry about later. My main concern right now was to recover the vases and hide them somewhere safe.
However, Sunday turned out to be a nightmare. Thick dark clouds were sitting on top of the mountains and throwing down the rain in sheets of heavy drizzle, which meant I wouldn’t be able to get back to the house that day.
It was tradition back then that we always wore our Sunday best clothes to Mass, and if it was raining my mother insisted we wore our best overcoat too, irrespective of how we looked in it.
As I said, there were four boys and four girls in our house. And we were poor. Which meant we only had two 'Sunday-best' coats, one for the boys and one for the girls.
The ‘rainy day’ routine was for the two oldest kids to go to the eight o’clock Mass, getting back in time for the next two to go to the nine o’clock Mass, then the next two etc. I was always glad that I wasn’t the youngest. Not only did the coat look like an giant sack on them, but by the time they got to wear it, it would be soaked through as well.
So I had to wait until school was out on the Monday, and I ran all the way across town to the cottage. The rain had stopped sometime in the early hours of the morning but it was still dull and damp.
There was no one around. I scrambled around looking everywhere for something to climb on the roof with. Eventually I managed to drag some sleepers and stand them against the wall. By now my shoes were soaked and squelching with mud, but I dragged myself up and reached into the gutter where I thought the vases should be.
My heart did a flutter. I moved along as far as I could reach. Still nothing.
I jumped down and dragged the sleepers farther along the wall, and a last I could feel the rim of a vase. It took about eight attempts to prise it out of the slime and wet of the chute, but when I did I jumped down with it and said a silent prayer.
This turned instantly into a curse.
When the vase landed in the gutter it was pointing the wrong way. When the rain came the water cascaded down the roof and along the chute, and in through the top of the vase.
The money was soaked with a thick black gunk. I tried to pick it out but it crumbled in my fingers. I turned the vase upside down and shook it. A manky pulp dripped out of it. In desperation I threw the vase onto the ground, smashing it to bits. By now I was in tears.
The second vase was in a worse state. It had cracked and most of the money had slithered down the drainpipe and was now clogging up the drain with the same grey pulp.
Somehow, though, I did manage to rescue some of the notes. They were the ones at the centre of the bundles and hadn’t been touched by the water.
It wasn’t a life changing amount of money, that’s for sure, and I really can’t remember what I spent it on.
But I know it wasn’t a new Sunday coat.