Official Collector

Author: Bill Griffin

To have epilepsy or to be an epileptic; that is the question.

Joe hadn’t noticed her on the way in to the bank. Another charity worker. He was in a hurry. Most people hurry into banks as if each transaction is afforded a window of opportunity that must not be missed, as if hurrying will somehow get you quickly to the top of the queue. Joe always queued. If a mistake was to be made then he wanted to know who made it.

“Rare is the person who can weigh the faults of others without putting his thumb on the scales” Lord Byron.

He didn’t notice her because he had got used to people standing or sitting outside banks and shops in luminous vests or sashes. He was immune to their rattling requests for him to supplement their perceived shortfall in his monthly tax donation. He was quite adept at walking with his head down, unable to face the silent assertion that he had disposable income that should go to yet another deserving cause. For him the clattering tins had become silent; the explanatory cards emptied of information; the outstretched hand paralysed as he excused himself of any responsibility.

“If you give to one you have to give to all. So I don’t give to any” Joe would explain if the subject of charitable donations came up for discussion among the unchallenging company of his pay as you earn friends. “It’s demeaning to live on charity” he would assert without any experience.

What stopped him on the way out was the shaking. She was parked in a well worn wheelchair festooned with peeling stickers of a previous Manchester United team. She was far enough from the bank door to allow smooth escape to reticent donors. The soft back tires teetered close to the footpath edge and the shifting line of taxis with their attention and lights switched off. Red podgy fingers protruded from her fingerless gloves which rested on the table tray. This kept her body somewhat upright but did not prevent her head falling forward in an attitude of supplication that seemed to fit the situation. A light silent mist was slipping up from the seafront, wetting without her noticing. She started twitching, stopping, jerking, stopping, fingers flicking like a baton less conductor negotiating an unfamiliar score; her muscles reacting to her own internal ECT. Thick lensed glasses with Elastoplast reinforcements swung precariously from one ear that poked out from under her red and white hat. The uneven stripes suggested a poor home knitted imitation of what was on sale at the Old Trafford gift shop. Her heavy wool coat was bulging through the restrictions of her undersize garish yellow Official Collector vest. This compulsory garment presumably separated her from Unofficial Collectors and other exponents of more socially unacceptable begging. Strewn around the path were the collar pins that proved you had already given, that allowed you to deal face to face with repeated requests from other strategically positioned Official Collectors. And of course they looked well on the collar. Charity always assumed added value when displayed.

“One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and no one comes to sit by it. Passers by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way”.
Vincent Van Gogh.

The Official Collectors tin with its untrusting sealed lid lay at the feet of a young man using the ATM machine. He was concentrating on the faded information on the screen and not coming face to face with the Collector. He certainly wasn’t aware of the drama unfolding behind him. Without his glasses Joe could only see one word on the now unnecessary poster that dangled from the two strips of sellotape on front of the tray: EPILEPSY. He folded his money into his wallet and pushed past two women who stood watching, nodding their heads from a safe distance. He fingered the warmth inside his shirt collar, touching his own rising temper.

The card enclosed in plastic that hung round her neck from the red and white string held all the information one would require about a non person.
My name is Maria. I am an epileptic. If I require help please ring; and there followed two numbers that implied help from static and mobile helpers. Joe decided that it was more appropriate to call an ambulance. He conscripted one of the women onlookers to perform the task. She immediately jumped over the invisible line that separates onlookers from interveners and took the offered mobile phone with a smile on her face. People are only too happy to help. They only need to be asked and, of course, to feel someone else is in charge.

“No one is useless in the world who lightens the burden of another” Charles Dickens.

Joe released the one brake on the wheelchair that worked and pushed Maria into the bank past a confused and momentarily objecting queue at the Foreign Exchange counter. He offered the Customer Help desk the opportunity to implement all those much vaunted claims about being the caring bank. His expression offered only one acceptable answer to his request.

“Life’s too short for chess” Lord Byron.

They got him a room and managed to resist asking if Maria was one of their customers. The manager, who by now had arrived to assess the unusual transaction being processed in his otherwise organized environment, took one look at Joe talking to Maria’s convulsing frame and diagnosed that tea for all was required.

“Society is now one polished horde, the bores and the bored” Lord Byron.

The young blond customer service staff shuffling and surveying her split ends in the safety of the doorway offered to do the necessary. With a sheepish grin towards Joe and an authoritative wave of his hand to his employee he insisted on attending to it personally. Nothing like walking the job to know what’s going on. By now flashes of consciousness were sparking through the seizure. The protective walls of Maria’s blissful unawareness of her situation were crumbling. She scrabbled over the sides of the wheelchair for the tin while her limbs continued to dance to the disordered signals from her brain. To anyone passing the door it could have seemed as if she was trying to beat off an attempted robbery by this suited man. Joe’s foot slipped as he moved to prevent her head from banging on the handles of the chair. The floor was wet and the pungent smell of strong urine filled his nose and the small interview room space. Maria started to undo her coat and make efforts to get up from the chair. The message to use the toilet had come too late. Joe grabbed a sheaf of handouts on financial investment opportunities from the desk to arrest the puddle and threw open the window. He could do little to minimize the embarrassment that Maria was slowly experiencing in the lucid gaps of her intermittent recovery.

“I must lose myself in action lest I wither in despair” Moliere.

By the time the ambulance came Maria’s activity had reduced to transient absences that lasted just long enough for her to lose the thread of any conversation Joe was trying to have with her. Her fingers and lower legs flicked out the dying steps of her neuron fuelled dance.

“I had a dream which was not all a dream” Lord Byron.

Despite his best efforts Joe still knew no more about her than was on the plastic card which was now in his inside pocket.

“Ah Maria I thought it might be you” the ambulance man greeted his former customer. As he wheeled her to the ambulance, in his matching reflective coat, Joe added ambulance personnel to the wider family of Official Collectors.

Joe sat alone in the interview room looking at the identity card. He was fuming, turning it over and over in his hands. “I am an epileptic” screamed through the wrinkled heat sealed plastic cover. The summary of Maria’s being, the defining characteristic of her existence captured in that one unforgiving statement. Her incomplete name would be easily forgotten but that tag would be emblazoned on the memory of anyone reading it. Another group tossed outside the Pale of smug normality.

“Glory is fleeting but obscurity is forever”. Napoleon Bonaparte.

His eyes flicked momentarily. His thigh muscles tightened without his conscious command. He recognized the signs. A bad night’s sleep and getting stressed were not a good combination for someone who had epilepsy since he was eighteen. In the intervening thirty two years he had managed to have epilepsy without becoming an epileptic. He closed his hand over the card and left the room; calm once more.

“If one sticks too rigidly to ones principles one would hardly see anybody”
Agatha Christie.

As he passed the customer service desk he slid the autobiography to the girl who had helped him and asked her to ring the contact numbers. She nodded and smiled and quietly accepted the responsibility.

“Ability is nothing without opportunity” Napoleon Bonaparte.

As he left the bank he noticed the collectors tin had gone.

“Miserable bastards” he said aloud adding a more pointed quote to those of more famous people who also had epilepsy but never became epileptics. Nobody heard him.