Sunday, 6 May 2012

Lucky You



(Lucky You - The National)

Miller had never been a lucky man. Raffle tickets for good causes curled and yellowed in a drawer with fading lottery tickets and tattered betting slips. He'd never been a lucky man, which was why he was surprised when he picked the envelope up off the street and found out that he was a Lucky Winner.

The envelope was an unremarkable thing, a non-descript brown oblong. Miller picked it up because if he saw anything interesting on the street he always picked it up. It was one of the ways in which he compensated for not being a lucky man: this was a short-cut, a way of cheating. He wasn't entering a contest, as such, so perhaps the gods that prevented him benefiting from good fortune would be looking the other way.

He wouldn't even have noticed the envelope if it had been for an incontinent dog. He had just avoided treading in one evil-looking yellow mess, and was walking along the street with his gaze firmly fixed on the pavement, determined to avoid the other piles which appeared at ten foot intervals, when he saw the envelope lying half in the gutter, half on the curb. He looked closely to make sure that it wasn't resting in any excrement, and then he picked it up.

It was unmarked, apart from the words "Important: Open Me" which appeared on the front, in a plain type of a modest size. Miller flexed the envelope in his hands. The contents were thin but firm, like a cheap birthday card. He ran his thumbnail along the top of the envelope and pulled out the contents. It was a ticket, coloured gold and the first thing that he noticed were the words “LUCKY WINNER”.

At first he thought that it was junk mail, the sort that began Dear Mr Miller, You Have Won A Hundred Thousand Pounds at the top, and ended by explaining that if you bought some shoddy goods, you might end up in a draw in which you might win a prize of some value as yet unspecified but inevitably less than you had spent in the first place. But the more he read, the more excited he got. This wasn’t junk mail. This was real.

You are a Lucky Winner of a new kind of lottery, the ticket read. Money is donated by our corporate sponsors, and once every six months winning tickets are left in public spaces chosen at random. Many of these tickets will go unclaimed, swept into bins or washed down gratings. But the few people who are are observant and curious enough not to pass them by will be rewarded as Lucky Winners and will share in Fantastic Cash Prizes. You are one of these people. Soon, as word gets out, people will be combing the streets for one of these tickets. But you are a Lucky Winner already, and can claim your prize now!

There was an address in the business district and a bar code along one edge of the ticket. Miller started to jiggle from foot to foot with excitement. FHe’d heard about big companies doing this sort of thing, it was just another way of advertising, a new gimmick that would get people talking, viral marketing. Sports shoe companies, car manufacturers, companies that made best-selling chocolate bars, they’d all be in on this, soon the whole city would be talking about it and people would be ransacking parks, rummaging through rubbish on the streets, trying to find the Lucky Winner tickets. But he was one of the first. Maybe even the first. Miller stood for a moment on the street, as excited as a child at Christmas, visions of yachts and tanned women and casinos and sports cars whirling in his mind in a dance of luxury and endless pleasure. He looked again at the address on the ticket.

“Taxi!” he shouted, and he stuck one hand out into the road, the other clenched tight around the ticket.

###

He had intended to ask the taxi driver to wait, but on the way he changed his mind. The driver might realise that Miller had just won a fortune and would pester him for a large tip, so he asked the man to let him out when they reached the street. The neighbourhood looked safe enough, unremarkable brick and glass offices, occasional men in suits scuttling between them.

He did not need to look again at his winning ticket, the address was in his memory and would stay there as long as he lived. Number 635, floor A. The door of the building nearest to him belonged to a firm of architects, and was emblazoned with a decorative number one. Miller wished he hadn’t been so hasty in paying the taxi off, and set off down the street.

Number 635 was a plain building, no different from the other six hundred and thirty four that Miller had trudged past. A discreet name plate outside indicated that it was the offices of the LW Corporation, but gave nothing else away. Hardly surprising though, Miller thought, why shout about their presence. Might attract all sorts of undesirables. He was surprised though, when the door did not open. Surprised, and annoyed. It was the middle of the week, it was the middle of the day, no business should be shut at this time. He looked around for a bell, but could not see one. Then he realised that under the nameplate, set into the wooden surround, was a metal slot a few millimetres wide. Miller reached into his pocket – stopped, looked around, made sure that nobody was about to mug him – and pulled out the envelope. He took the ticket out, and slid the edge with the bar code on into the slot. There was a faint hum, and then a click, and the door in front of him jerked open a few inches.

Miller pushed through it and walked in to a small lobby. There was no desk, and no-one in sight. He stood there for a moment, uncertain. Surely there should be somebody around? Maybe the receptionist was tending to the needs of another Lucky Winner. He felt an unexpected resentment; he had wanted to be the first.

“Hello?” he said. “Hello?” 

“Hello sir. You must be a lucky winner.” Miller jumped, because the voice came from behind him, and he had not noticed any other doors other than that he had walked through. He relaxed though when he saw the speaker. He was a small man, rather old, and he walked with the sort of stoop that people who spend their lives in service acquire. He could have been a commissionaire, a night porter, an elderly family retainer. His dark suit smelt of mothballs, and when he walked – with a slight limp, Miller noticed – his highly-polished shoes squeaked.

“Yes, yes, that’s what I am. I have my ticket. Do you want to..."

“No sir, you hang on to your ticket. Congratulations on your good fortune. You’ll need to come this way sir, if you please.” The old man lead the way to a door on the far side of the lobby. That’s what I’ll do, Miller thought. I’ll have some servants. A man like this, and a fat cook, and a wise gardener, and a silent chauffeur to drive the cars.

He reached the door, where the old man stood waiting. I suppose he’s expecting a big tip afterwards, Miller thought. Well he’ll be disappointed, because I’ve got next to no money on me. Unless they give you a little bit of the prize in cash. Maybe they do. A few thousand to enjoy straight away, while all the business of banks and investments and trusts is sorted out. 

The old man opened the door and Miller walked through to a landing at the top of some stairs. The bottom of the stairs was in darkness. Miller began to turn, but he was too late, far too late. The old man shut the door behind him, and Miller heard a click.

“Hey!” Miller shouted. He pushed and rattled at the door, but the lock had engaged. “What the hell is going on? Are they all out at lunch or something? I don’t want to wait here. Hey!” All he heard though, was the a fading squeak of highly polished leather, and then there was nothing. This was an outrage. When he met the directors he’d make sure that he had the old man sacked. Perhaps they had kept him on past retirement out of sentiment, not realising quite how senile the fellow was getting.

Miller pulled the ticket from his pocket again, read both sides as if he were expecting to find something on there that he had missed the other hundred times that he had read it. Nothing about opening hours on there. Nothing about lunchtimes. It struck him that he was being very foolish. The reason that it was dark at the bottom of the stairs was probably that a bulb had just blown, and no-one had realised yet. The reason that the door was locked behind him was obvious too: it was for security.

“Of course,” Miller said out loud. “They must give out cash. Excellent. Sensible of them to keep the doors locked then, cash on the premises.” He walked down the stairs, still holding his ticket, squinting as the light from the landing slowly faded behind him. He couldn’t see what was in the room at the bottom of the stairs, but it looked to be quite some size. There was a strange and very unpleasant smell, that he couldn’t place. Perhaps there was a light switch on the wall nearby. He stepped forward into the room, hand fumbling up the wall, but then he slipped on something loose on the floor and fell. He broke his fall with his free hand, still clinging on for dear life to his winning ticket with the other.

“What the hell is this? Nearly broke my neck, paper all over the floor, it’s a disgrace, health and safety would have a fit.” He scooped up a handful of what he had slipped on, and peered at it. He couldn’t see well enough, so he retreated half way up the stairs where the light was better, at one point nearly falling again, when he got his foot tangled in what felt like a bundle of sticks. The smell was becoming unbearable. 

When he reached the top, he looked at what he had collected from the floor. Then he sat down on the top step, his winning ticket in one hand, half a dozen identical others in the other, all of them battered and torn and stained red, and he started to cry. He had never been a lucky man.

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