December. A happy time for most. Friends and families, Christmas dinners. Fun and frolics. While most looked forward to their holidays, I was hoping to find a meal. Camden Market closed at 6pm and, while vendors cleared away stalls and wares, I might find rotten fruit lying in the street. Half eaten sandwiches, maybe, or a kindly vendor would offer me a hot drink. A rare occurrence. Now they were realising who I am, and what I’ve done, most refuse to serve me. Stricken by hunger, anything would do. I was allowed one meal each day at the Camden Inn Hostel on Bayham Street. One meal. Not nearly enough sustenance for a man of my age. In the evenings I could shamble my way to the market in search of discarded food.
The route from hostel to market might as well have been a trek to the South Pole. My body was weak with hunger, and I could barely walk as far as the Camden Town underground station, but I persisted. I had to get to the market. I had to eat. Fingerless gloves, a torn shirt, trousers and beat up jacket was all I had. The soles of my shoes had long since fallen away. I used to own a baseball cap, but that had been stolen. Now I sported a strip of flex bandage on my head, like a bandana. It covered my ears. This dishevelled look was not good for me. A far cry from the way things once were – wife and son. Our Islington home. Pin stripe suits, Mercedes Maybach S Class parked in the drive. I had been a hedge fund manager in the city, but now was nothing. Nobody.
The market was closing for the day. Vendors packed away their goods. Packaging and paper littered the street. Air was frozen in a December mist. Street lamps cast beacons of misted light onto the streets, like searchlights in the sky. The few shoppers, who had not already hurried to their warm homes, stood examining stalls, each wrapped in warm coats, scarves, good gloves and woollen hats to protect their ears from the cold.
I kicked aside a cardboard box. Beneath it lay a half-eaten chocolate bar. Snatching it up, I devoured the chocolate greedily, unheedful that it was filthy. A battered peach lay at the roadside. I lifted it into my pocket. It was soft and bruised. I didn’t care. It was food.
There was a hot-dog van parked nearby. Burgers, it announced. Hot dogs. Tea and Coffee. I had coins in my pocket. Counting them, I discovered I had enough to buy a cup of weak coffee from a vending machine. I would have, were I able. A portly woman was drinking from a plastic beaker of weak coffee. The smell of the coffee made my stomach turn with hunger. I took coins from my pocket and offered them, nodding at the vending machine. “Please…” I muttered. The woman took the coins from me and was about to buy a drink when she noticed the scar on my arm. She shook her head violently. “Not you!” you stammered. She threw the coins to the floor, turned aside, and hurried away. It was always this way. I’d ask for help. They rejected me. I know I deserved it. A peach and half-eaten chocolate bar were my prize. I began shuffling home.
Money, hard cash, was no longer a physical property. Everything was digital. Huge sums could be transferred at the press of a button. Myself and my colleagues, James, and Richard, had conspired to misdirect huge amounts of digital cash. It was so easy. Easy, too, to cover our tracks. When such amounts were moved from A to B or to C many times each day, the company’s fraud and quality control departments didn’t blink. It was our job. Move the balance to a private offshore account. Then vanish. That was the plan. Unfortunately, in our hurry, one of us keyed in the wrong account number. Alerts were raised. As were eyebrows. Questions had been asked. Had I been working alone; I might have been able to excuse myself. Talk me out of a fix, but with three of us, stories differed. That was where we failed. Charged with conspiracy to defraud. Almost piracy. We were convicted, but the sentence and the punishment was the implant. A clever device. It released hormones into the blood stream whenever a cyber device was operated, a phone, a computer, laptop, iPad, for God’s sake. The sentence was one year. During that time, they hoped we would learn our lesson. I had. Shuffling about markets, eating discarded food. Being sneered at, rejected – hated – I shrugged. When my year was over, I’d go back to who I had been. Maybe not the cyber criminal. No chance of that.
A call from behind stalled my progress. I turned to see three youths standing apart. Their aggressive posture indicated I was about to be robbed. I stifled a laugh. Robbed of what? I had nothing worth stealing.
“Your phone, Dad!” cried one.
I shrugged my shoulders. A hopeless gesture. I was grabbed by violent hands and pushed back against a wall. I felt the tearing of material as they rifled through my pockets. One grabbed my arm searching for my wristwatch. “Look at that!” he shouted, lifting my arm for all to examine. “He’s one of them,” he announced.
The others studied the wound on my arm and gave me a look of disgust. One hit me in the face, and I tasted blood. I heard the running of feet and they were gone.
I continued my journey back to the hostel. I passed a telephone kiosk. How easy it would be to call the police – an ambulance; but even that was beyond me. The few coins in my pocket had been taken, and I couldn’t use them, anyway. The very act of feeding them into the phone so I could make a call caused me to feel nausea. It was like that with everything. I had no mobile phone, no credit card. Forget your self-service devices in shops. All were forbidden to me. I could ask others to make the call, of course. Offer them the money, if I had it, but they would refuse. They always did. They sensed what I was. They knew what I had done.
I was fortunate the muggers had not found the key strung around my neck, or I would have been homeless. I let myself into my room at the hostel to find the lights on. Shocking, since I couldn’t operate them myself. I could operate nothing. Death, I often thought, would be better than this, but they didn’t do that. I wished they had. Simon, my probation officer was sitting in an armchair studying me “You’re bleeding,” he observed.
“They take much?”
I shook my head.
“Of course they didn’t,” Simon said mirthlessly. “You have nothing to take.”
I slumped on the floor, slouching forward, my head on my knees.
Simon poured hot coffee from a flask. “Drink it slowly,” he said, “and here.” He offered me a sandwich. I tore at it ravenously. “Slowly!” he warned.
While I devoured the bread, Simon continued. “I spoke to Amy on Friday. She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Not like this,” I replied, my mouth full of food. I washed it down with a draft of coffee.
“One more week, Frank,” Simon went on, “and your implant will be removed.”
I swallowed the last of the sandwich. “Why didn’t they just kill me?” I asked. I pleaded. Begged.
“It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “We’re not primitives. It’s been a year and you’ve paid for your crime.”
I thought of Amy and John, my wife and son. Ex wife. I had embezzled my employer of 13 million pounds. Easy to do if you know how. There were three of us. Simon gave me a look of sympathy. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said.
“There will be re-training,” he went on. “We can’t release you into the community after a year with the implant.”
The implant made me feel ill each time I attempted to handle technology; telephones, cash points, televisions, kettles, light switches – anything with an electric power supply. I could not dine out. I had no credit or debit card. I could not shop for food or clothes. I had to ask others for help. At first, they did, but gradually the stigma of an implant drew me into a cocoon of loneliness. I had existed for almost a year on my own. A room at a hostel. One meal provided each day, a small allowance. I had lived my life as an animal – foraging waste or discarded food, drinking from puddles in the road. Outcast from 21st century society. No family or friends. Just me, Frank, the convicted cyber criminal. Many times, I considered taking my own life – but I couldn’t even accomplish that.
Nights were the hardest. Alone in the dark. Hungry. I slept fitfully. I curled up on my bed into a fetal position, clutching at my stomach. Breakfast was a morsel. I’d have to survive the day on a slice of toast and cup of coffee. There were dreams. Dreams of family, of work and of friends. All those things were gone from me now.
I sighed. “There could have been an easier way,” I suggested. “I apologised, said I was sorry. Promised never to do it again.”
Simon left another sandwich and cup of coffee for me, warning not to eat or drink too fast. I drank and devoured. Then I slept.
My dreams were filled with memories. Keying in an account number. Transferring a balance. Erasing the transfer. There were dreams of Amy. She lay in my arms. Kissing me. Dreams of John. His first day at school. Family holidays at the beach. Laughter. There were dreams of Hylett and Barker where I had worked. Days transferring monies between accounts. Hours poring over computer screens. Sitting all day had been the danger. Everyone in the office had ring cushions on their chair. Hours spent on our behinds often led to the development of hemorrhoids. We worked with piles of cash – and piles on our asses. A tickertape like screen of stock indexes and trends fed across the wall, allowing me to gauge which values to transfer. A client’s fortunes depended on my choices. The crime was easy – simply transfer to an off-shore account and delete and destroy evidence of the trade. Simple, really. Or should have been. I grimaced regret. One tiny mistake was all it took, one flawed keystroke.
Islington was a different life. One I hoped to return to. Maybe. Or maybe not. Amy met someone else and they planned to marry. John was only six. I doubt he understood. His father had been taken by the police. My former life was gone. What, I wondered, do I have to return to? By then, I was awake. Maybe I could be the mugger, I thought. Steal food. Money was of no use to me.
I meant what I said when I apologised. For God’s sake, prison would have been easy compared to this. And what of the implant? What if removing it resolved nothing. I wondered, was this how I must live? I missed my wife. I missed my son. I missed business dinners, dates, popcorn at the cinema.
Before he left, Simon had said to me, “It’s not supposed to be easy, Frank.” There was an urgency about him. “The punishment,” he concluded, “had to fit the crime.”
Breakfast was poached egg on toast and coffee. I was meant to survive the day on that. Bed and breakfast was for those able to find dinner. Not me. This life was not punishment. It was Hell.
One more week, Simon had told me. I had managed almost a year like this. Is that strength? No, it isn’t. It’s desperation. I’d read about the implant long before I was, myself, implanted. I laughed at the article in the news. “That’ll teach them,” I said. It had certainly taught me. Cybercrime: hacking of websites, mobile phones and computers had drastically been reduced. Not completely, though. There would always be one who thought they’d get away it. I had. Christmas loomed. I’d spend it in my room at the hostel. No doubt I’d go out foraging. My mouth suddenly watered at the thought of mince pies and Christmas dinner.
Following breakfast, I went out. My face was too familiar at the market. I wandered the streets, seeking a vendor. I had money in my pocket. It’s an allowance I receive. Enough, at least to buy a pie and maybe a drink. Normally, that would be easy. Simply hand over the money and the trade is done. I’ve tried it. Many times. But the moment they recognise the implant scar on my arm, they refuse to serve me. It’s like being a leper.
The pain began as a weariness. True, I hadn’t slept very well, but this was something else. My legs were suddenly heavier. Breathing was difficult. Then the pain. It felt as though someone had plunged their hand into me and was dragging my heart out. I sagged against a wall. Sank down until I was sitting.
“You okay, mate?” someone asked.
I tried to reply but instead clutched at my heart.
“Let’s get you to the hospital,” they said. I felt them lift my arm, attempting to raise me, but suddenly they let go and I fell to the floor.
“He’s one of those,” someone else said. And I was abandoned.
I woke in a hospital bed. I’d vomited. Then I understood why when I saw the ECG monitor. Amy was by the bed watching me.
“You idiot!” she said.
I attempted a smile.
“Simon contacted me,” she continued.
“Yes,” I replied weakly. “He has your number.”
“You only have this week, then the implant is removed.”
“And I come home?”
Amy shook her head. “Simon has arranged something.”
I had hoped she’d say yes. She was right. I’m stupid.
“I have to go now.”
I nodded. “Take care,” and I watched Amy leave the room. There was such sadness. I’d paid for my crime. I wasn’t going to do it again. Certainly not if I had to go through this again. I would have liked to go home. Warmth and comfort. Love. Family. I sighed. That was another life, too.
I remained in hospital for the week. Apparently, I had too much potassium in my blood. A condition related to my poor diet. They gave me Sodium Bicarbonate capsules. I had to take these with food. Lucky me.
Days later, I woke to find Simon beside my bed. “It’s out!” he announced.
“The implant,” said Simon. “It’s been removed. You can go home.”
For a moment I felt joy. “Home?”
“Your new home. You have a flat in Enfield.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “For a moment I thought you meant-”
Simon frowned. “I know what you thought, but you can’t go back.”
“No,” said Simon. “Life.”
I studied my arm. There was a dressing where the wound had been.
“That’s it then,” I suggested.
“It’s not a happy ending, Frank, but it’s the best I can do.”
A happy ending would have been Amy. Maybe she’d allow me to see John.
The nurses arrived. They gave me a container of Sodium Bicarbonate capsules. To be taken with food. They disconnected me from the ECG and helped me dress.
The flat was a bed and a sitting room, bathroom, and kitchen. Sparse in comparison with my former home in Islington, but a far cry from the hostel in Camden. I was found a job in South Kensington, repairing NHS furniture. I was not allowed to work with computers and finance. I was assigned a case worker with an employment charity for vulnerable people and ex convicts. It was better than living on the streets. There was still a scar on my arm, and strangers would treat me with suspicion, but at least I could shop for myself.
Days came and went. Two buses to and from work. I had food. I had drinks. I had a mobile phone. Albeit a cheap one without bunting and whistles, but it had the internet so I could arrange to have food delivered. One afternoon each week was spent at the hospital for test. For my heart, and for my rehabilitation from the implant.
One evening, Amy contacted me. Simon had given her my number. She invited me to visit herself and John in Islington. This also meant meeting Paul, her new fellow. I didn’t mind, really. I was growing used to the fact that my former life was over.
I was on my way to visit Amy and John, and Paul. Buying a coffee in the bus station, when a shabbily dressed fellow approached me. He wore fingerless gloves. His coat had seen its better days, and his shoes were falling apart. I noticed the scar on his arm. He offered me money and asked if I’d buy him coffee. I softened. I knew what he was going though. I’d been there for a year. I took his money and purchased a cup of coffee, which he drained greedily. Then, he offered me more money and asked if I’d buy him a sandwich.
I dithered. I knew how it was for him. It wasn’t meant to be easy. I steeled myself. “Sorry,” I said, “but the punishment must fit the crime.”
Climbing aboard the bus, I saw him watching me. A forlorn and lonely figure. Part of me wanted to embrace him, maybe buy him that sandwich. Many times, it had been me in that position. I knew how he felt.
Then the bus pulled out of the station and I went to visit my son.
I have been a writer for some years, independently publish poetry and short stories including the genres: children's fiction, action, romance, paranormal, history and fantasy. Following discharge from the RAF, I trained as a computer programmer and spent the rest of my career in computer software development and engineering, until retiring due to ill-health.