REAL CHARITY • by Rhys Timson

William and Alice huddle in the entranceway of a church in Vilnius’s old town, taking shelter from the downpour hammering the cobbles. Wiser people walk by with umbrellas while others take a more ersatz approach to protection, holding  magazines and spread-eagled books over their bare heads. Some hardier types stride through the wetness unshielded, droplets running down their foreheads and dripping from their chins.

“I told you we should have brought an umbrella,” says Alice.

“How was I to know it would rain?” William replies.

“Well, I’m not getting my hair wet.”

There is a woman with thin grey hair in a ponytail kneeling just beyond the threshold, holding out her hands and expecting — William assumes — heaven to fill them with silver. He sees her but focuses his gaze elsewhere, at the jagged rain splitting the air. He is thinking they should have stayed in the  bar for another drink. They could have waited out the storm with more bottles of Svyturys, instead of shivering in a church porch.

They are on their way to a klezmer concert — Alice’s choice, William does not see the point in listening to music in a language he does not understand. “It’s real folk culture,” Alice had enthused, “so vibrant.” But William doesn’t want culture, he wants a few bars, a few drinks, and an early night with Alice. “This is meant to be a holiday,” he had protested. In two days time they will be back in the grey morass of London, and before then he needs to feel some sense of release.

“Do you have any money?” Alice whispers.

William shifts from foot to foot and looks at the rainwater pouring in parallel streams down the sides of the street.

“I have some,” he says.

“Give me a pound.”

“I don’t know what that is in litai.”

“Guess,” says Alice.

“I don’t have change,” he says.

“You aren’t even looking.”

He peers out from beneath the safety of the porch and feels the rain spatter his glasses. “What street is this place is on?”

“Kedainiu gatve.”

“Kedainiu?” he says. “No, we went down there last night, remember? Nothing down there except a good place to take a piss at 2 AM.”

“Shhhh.” She holds her fingers to her mouth. He wonders whom she thinks he will offend. “Give me some money.”

“What for?” he says.

“You know what for.” She nods her head towards the beggar.

“No,” he says.

“I’ll pay you back.”

“No,” he repeats.

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe in it,” he says. “How do you know she’s for real?”

“She looks real to me. Give me some money.”

“No,” he shakes his head. “Anyway, I think the rain’s easing off.”

“Just think about her life for a change. You’re so tight sometimes.”

Yes, he thought, I’m tight. I paid for the flight, the hotel, the dress you’re wearing, but I’m the miser. He doesn’t say this, though. What he says is: “Give her your own money.”

“I don’t have any,” she says.

“Well.” He pushes his shoulders back and turns out towards the rain. He feels a weariness creeping over him — whatever connection has brought him to Lithuania with Alice, it is slipping away.

He hears singing coming from inside the church — a sonorous, mournful sound. He has no words to cover it, the language is alien to him, but he feels it in each note, the longing for transcendence, the sorrow of earthly woes. It makes him uncomfortable, but the feeling changes.

He wishes the rain would stop so they could get on their way, but it — like the singing — is beyond his control. He turns his head to look into the darkened interior of the church. At the end of the hallway, candlelight flickers against the stone walls. He looks again at the beggar, only briefly, but she does not even try to catch his eye. Head up, hands out, she is as still as a statue. Alice, meanwhile, will not return his gaze either.

The music has reached up inside his brain. He feels it spreading, settling like morning mist over his cerebellum. The voices soar and he feels them lifting him. His limbs are lighter — wave after wave of a shivering something washes over him. He does not know what it is. He does not believe in God, but he cannot deny what he feels. The voices drop, and he is suspended in time. He closes his eyes and hears the slickened clicking of his eyelids. He opens them again and it is not just the rain that hangs on his lashes. As the voices hold a long, last note, he sees the world through the refracted lens of a tear drop. He is no longer standing in the doorway of a church sheltering from the rain. He is floating down to earth from somewhere higher, his soul a swooning, gently falling feather. He cannot communicate how he feels.

“The rain’s easing off,” Alice says. “We should go or we’ll be late.”

“What about your hair?” he says. She does not notice the way his voice has slowed, the way he drags out each word, feeling for a music that is not there.

“So what?” she says.

He reaches inside his trouser pocket and pulls out his wallet. Then, right before Alice’s eyes, he selects a 500 litai note — he is well aware this is ten pounds, even if Alice is not. He smiles at Alice, takes two steps towards the beggar, and places it in her hands. She crosses herself and says something in Lithuanian. William nods, smiles,  and turns back to Alice.

“You only gave because I told you to,” she says, as she turns and walks away. “That isn’t real charity.”

Rhys Timson lives in London and has previously had worked published by 3:AM Magazine, Opium, Aesthetica and other places. He also has a story forthcoming in Notes from the Underground and is trying to build some kind of writerly website.

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