When he’d said ‘stick ’em up!’ she’d wanted to laugh. That was the kind of cliché only movies dared to use, not real-life actual bank robbers. However, that’s what he’d said and due to the gun he was thrusting through the slot of the cash window, that’s what she did.
He’d demanded that she fill a bag with all the money in her drawer but as she’d carefully pointed out, she could hardly do that with her hands in the air, could she? He’d begrudgingly agreed to let her put down her hands but to keep them in view, however, he couldn’t have known about the tiny alarm button her finger brushed over while gathering up twenty pound notes, which alerted the back room staff to the emergency situation in progress.
The robbery would’ve been seamless if her supervisor hadn’t come storming out of the office, demanding to know ‘which of you idiots has set the alarm off this time?’ suggesting that accidental deployment of the alert was a regular occurrence. This time of course, it wasn’t accidental, which the supervisor discovered as he came face to face with the man brandishing a handgun. The cashier’s face became a picture of resigned expectancy, which the supervisor could see reflected back at him in the toughened safety glass, but what he didn’t expect was the gunman’s next course of action. His face twisting up into a picture of disgust, he ordered the supervisor to swap places with the terrified cashier, whose life had flashed before her that very second and who’d been convinced she was about to die. The supervisor hesitated long enough for the gunman to scream that he was putting everyone’s lives at risk, as for the first time since the drama had begun every person still in the bank became an unwitting cast member of the drama playing out before them.
The supervisor had evidently been on a course that told him what to do in such situations as armed robbery, as he now tried to take control of the situation by supposedly engaging the culprit on his own level.
‘You don’t want to do this mate, you’re only young. Got your whole life ahead of you. Why not put the gun down and run while you can?’
Unfortunately, the supervisor had no way of knowing that his words would make things worse, despite them being from page one of the bank’s ‘how to deal with armed robbers’ ring binder that every new employee was forced to read.
Despite wearing a scarf around the lower part of his face, the fury in the young man’s features was evident to the supervisor and he realised too late how he’d misjudged things.
‘I haven’t got my whole life ahead of me have I?’ screamed the man through the window, his breath leaving a film of condensation on the glass despite his mouth being covered. ‘I’m dying, yeah? I’ve got nothing to lose. What about you though? What have you got to lose? And all you lot?’ the gunman swung round and addressed the remaining customers who’d been trapped inside after the self-locking door was triggered by the alarm.
No one dared speak, presuming the gunman’s questions to be rhetorical, but as he scanned the room, his eyes alighted on a young woman holding a baby that looked to be about six months old and he spoke to her directly.
‘I’m going to be a Dad soon; my wife’s five months pregnant. I’m doing this for her and the baby, so they’ll be alright when I’m gone. Or maybe I can pay for treatment abroad and I’ll actually get to stay alive long enough to meet my child, I dunno.’
‘I’m sorry,’ whispered the woman, almost involuntarily and for a split second they had a connection; a shared belief of the injustice and fragility of life.
Spinning back round to face the glass, the gunman saw that the supervisor had not continued the cashier’s efforts in filling the bag and his eyes took on a hard, determined look once again.
‘Haven’t you got anything to live for either then mate?’ sneered the young man.
‘W-what makes you say that?’ stuttered the supervisor.
‘Cause you’re certainly taking your time filling that bag.’
Unbeknownst to the young man, the supervisor had frequently spent time thinking he had nothing to live for. Working all week in the dreary sub-branch that his hometown contained, then going home to his small flat in a converted Victorian terrace; spending the evenings listening to his neighbour below playing heavy metal music and his neighbour above having arguments with his girlfriend, followed by noisy ‘make-up’ sex.
‘Maybe I don’t,’ said the supervisor, his hand poised between the cash drawer and the bag.
‘Maybe I don’t. You reckon you’re the only one with problems? You’re not, but you don’t see everyone going around threatening to blow people’s heads off.’
Suddenly emboldened, the supervisor began taking money back out of the bag and returning it to the cash drawer.
‘What the fuck are you doing mate? You’re gonna get everyone in here killed, you know that? Stop being a hero and fill the fucking bag!’
‘Look, the police are on their way already and you can’t get out of here because the doors are locked. Why don’t you come back here with me and I’ll get you a cup of tea? Give yourself up, yeah?’
Everyone in the bank held their breath momentarily, as at first it seemed like the young man would actually go along with the supervisor’s request. However, as the seconds passed the gunman turned to the assembled hostages and pointed his gun at them indiscriminately.
‘He’s getting you killed!’ he shouted to a man in his mid-fifties wearing a shirt which was now heavily coated with sweat. ‘He’s getting all of you killed!’
He pointed the gun at a man who looked to be in his early-thirties and went to pull the trigger. The man began crying and when he saw that the gunman lowered his weapon.
‘I can’t shoot someone who’s crying man, don’t do that to me.’
The cashier who’d originally been on the till looked across at the gunman, then placed her hand on her colleague’s shoulder.
‘Shall I do it Henry? You’re not putting the money back in. Do it Henry, for goodness sake!’
‘Yeah, listen to her Henry,’ parroted the gunman, ‘do as she says.’
‘I can’t,’ said Henry, trembling. ‘I can’t move.’
‘I’m losing my patience with you mate,’ said the gunman, ‘do it now or get a bullet in the head. The choice is yours.’
‘I-I think my colleague may have to do it for you,’ said Henry, shaking uncontrollably. ‘I can’t seem to do it.’
‘You weren’t so hesitant when you came out that door at the start, were you? Do you know why I wanted you to do it? Because of how rude you were to the cashier ladies. You’re a nasty piece of work, y’know that?’
Henry couldn’t believe he was getting called a ‘nasty piece of work’ by a man brandishing a handgun. Had he really sunk that low? Was he really such a cowardly, snivelling individual that he was even prepared to let the cashier take his place?
‘What d’ya mean ‘no’?’ said the gunman.
‘No, I don’t need my colleague to replace me, I can do it. I’m not going to be difficult.’
‘Very sensible of you mate. Now fill the damn bag.’
Suddenly, the sound of a voice enhanced through a megaphone filled the small bank vestibule.
‘This is the Police. We have armed officers out here and you will not get away. Come out now with your hands up and throw down your weapon.’
The gunman grabbed the nearest hostage, which happened to be the woman with the baby. The child began screaming and the woman struggled to get free, but the gunman held her tighter.
‘I’m sorry love; you’re the last person I’d want to do this to but I’m desperate. We’re going out there together.’
Grabbing the bag that Henry had stuffed through the service hole in the window, the gunman shouted at him to release the door, which he did. In the seconds that it took for the gunman to reach the outside, Henry had decided what he had to do. He jumped up and pulled open the staff access door and sprinted across the vestibule. He launched himself at the gunman and grabbed the child from the woman’s arms, causing her to scream and the gunman to jerk back in Henry’s direction.
Seeing the confusion, the police marksmen shouted for the gunman to let the woman go. The cashier had followed Henry outside and he thrust the baby into her arms before rugby-tackling the gunman to the ground. As the gunman fell he let go of the woman, who rolled away from him and scrabbled towards her baby.
‘Henry, they’re safe. Leave him!’ cried the cashier, who had reunited the woman with her child and was now concerned about Henry.
As the tussle between the two men continued, one of the police marksmen pulled the trigger, hitting the gunman in the back and causing his body to spasm. His finger, which was in the trigger, involuntarily pulled backwards and his gun fired.
Henry felt a burning pain spread from his stomach and his vision clouded over, so that all he could see while lying on his back was the blue of the sky.
‘Why haven’t I stopped and looked at the sky more?’ thought Henry, as he felt his bodyweight start to float upwards, ‘why haven’t I counted the stars when the sky’s been clear?’
‘Henry!’ screamed the cashier, as she rushed to his side, ‘Henry, stay with me. Somebody call an ambulance!’
Even as the sirens got louder, Henry knew his time on earth was drawing to a close, and he thought about his childhood, his schooldays, his adolescence and finally his working years spent entirely at the bank.
‘I never did go to India,’ he thought, as he felt someone kneeling beside him and cradling his head.
‘Henry, don’t go, stay here. Help is on its way.’
Recognising the voice of his colleague, he squeezed her hand and smiled.
‘It’s okay Sheila, it really is. I’m going to India to count the stars. It’s beautiful.’
‘Oh Henry, why did I never tell you how much I admired and liked you? Why have I waited until it’s too late?’
‘You admire me?’ croaked Henry, his voice starting to fade, ‘why me? I’m nobody.’
‘How can you say you’re nobody? You’ve just saved the life of that lady and her baby and probably the rest of us too. You’re a hero. You’re amazing!’
Henry felt the soft touch of Sheila’s lips lightly brush his cheek, as the blue sky enveloped him and whisked him upwards. When he opened his eyes again he was lying on his back, looking at the night sky, the stars twinkling and glowing before him. Reaching out to touch them and feeling their warmth in his hands, he floated closer to them and began counting.
(C) Sarah Butcher, 2014.