Tony looked through his computer bag for a five-euro note to give the old woman who always occupied the same spot on the pedestrian shopping street he took to and from work every day.
Tony didn’t often give anything to panhandlers. It was too easy for them to fake their seemingly pitiful ailments, and he didn’t like to encourage substance abuse or idleness. Last month he’d seen a guy hopping effortlessly into a taxi, tossing his crutch and cardboard sign into the back seat, somehow miraculously cured of his stoop and limp.
But, as far as Tony could tell from the many times he’d walked past her, this woman looked legitimately needy. There was no telling how old she was – even a Hollywood make-up artist couldn’t have created such a face. A face lined with the cares of the world, yet dignified. And it was Christmas Eve. Severe winter weather had been late in coming this year, but the streets were still cold, and the woman didn’t look that warmly dressed.
He rifled through his bag, but all Tony had was a fifty-euro note. While five, or even ten, euros were manageable, Tony just couldn’t see giving the old woman fifty euros. He needed to stop and pick up a couple grocery items on the way home – most stores would be closed tomorrow. And he didn’t have his credit card with him. Maybe he’d do something for her next week. Tony walked on.
A few minutes later, Tony turned into the narrow alley behind his apartment building. The light was starting to fade – sunset came early this time of year. Tony didn’t hear the mugger or even feel anything until he came to. It was dark, his head hurt, and his computer bag was gone. Along with his laptop, keys, cell phone, and the fifty-euro note.
Tony thought a minute, and decided his best bet would be to return to his office for help. His knee had been wrenched badly in the attack, but Tony thought he’d be able to make it back. There’d been several people still at work when he’d left, trying to wrap up various assignments before taking time off. Hopefully, someone would still be around. Tony could call his building super to let him into his apartment, and maybe borrow a few euros to tide him over.
As Tony limped back along the pedestrian shopping street, he noticed the old woman was still there. A man was standing next to her, and was reaching into a computer bag that looked a lot like Tony’s. Tony drew closer, until he was standing right next to the man, intending to confront him. Then, Tony saw him hand the old woman a fifty-euro note.
“Bless you, my son,” Tony heard the woman whisper.
“Merry Christmas to you, ma’am,” the man responded, with tenderness in his voice. “Eat well tonight.”
The man ducked quickly away down a nearby alley, while Tony caught the old woman’s eye. It was an eye cloudy with age. A small tear trickled from its corner and caught the faint light.
“Merry Christmas,” Tony stuttered at her, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. He winced as he started to limp away.
“Sir,” the woman called to him, and Tony turned back toward her.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, and handed him her cane.