Richer By Far

SHORT STORY

The word ‘Rich’ can be interpreted in many different ways. In this unusual game show, two men battle it out to discover who the audience believes is truly ‘Richer by Far’ . . .

The drum roll was deafening.

Millions of eyes, around the world, were transfixed by flashes of silver and gold as the drum span, jet-fast, on its axel.

As the rotations slowed, the crowded room held its breath. Every member of the audience and every viewer huddled around their TV screens leaned forward in their seats, hardly blinking.

Ronaldo’s slicked back, black hair shone like ebony, contrasting with his deep bloodwood tan. He brought the drum to an abrupt stop. With a dramatic flick of his wrist, he pushed back the flap and dipped his elegant, expertly-manicured fingers into the depths of the raffle tickets. A murmur of excitement rustled through the audience.

Another drum roll echoed around the hall, filling lounges, jolting nerves.

‘NUMBER 787!’ Ronaldo shouted, waving the ticket, as if he himself had just won the lottery.

A high-pitched squeal from the audience, verging on hysterical, ripped its way through eardrums. ‘Over here! Over here!’

A crisply tailored Armani suit sauntered towards the stage. Arrogance seeped out of him, like sweat. Clinging onto his arm, still screaming, an overly made-up redhead tottered on four-inch-high Manolos. Diamonds of an undefined number of carats dripped from her earlobes and wrists, her neck and nose, reminiscent of a mobile chandelier. She wore a bright yellow, tube-like dress reminding Lawrence of the banana he had hurriedly eaten that morning before leaving to catch the early train.

The Armani suit settled himself on a throne in centre stage, with his redhead confined to the wings. Ronaldo plucked a second ticket from the drum.

‘222!’ he yelled.

Lawrence stared at his ticket. His mouth gaped. Ellie’s birthday. 22nd February. His ticket. This couldn’t be happening. He was only here because Ellie made him promise. Not in a million years did he think he would be picked. How could he do this? In front of all these people.

‘222?’ Ronaldo’s nerves were as jittery as the rotating drum.

‘Here.’ With gargantuan effort, Lawrence pushed himself to standing. Despite the clapping, he knew he was being scanned from head to toe from every angle, and found lacking. Ellie’s face hovered in his field of vision. It was only one hour of his life. He would and could do this for her.

A smug smile stretched Armani’s Botox. This was in the bag. He knew it. You only had to look at the guy. What was he even doing here?

Once the two men were seated opposite each other, Ronaldo turned to the audience. ‘You know the drill by now. Your buttons at the ready. Blue to vote for Lawrence Mitchell and Red for Sebastian Miller-Rich.’ You have one vote per round.

‘Seb’s already won!’ a cut-glass accent cried out. ‘Even his name is “Rich”.’

A titter flickered around the hall. Lawrence’s heart sank a little further.

‘I will ask a question. You have one minute to answer, uninterrupted. The aim of the game is to work out who is RICHER BY FAR!’ The audience joined Ronaldo as he belted out the programme’s catchphrase.

Another drum roll.

Lawrence swallowed. Sebastian’s eyes bored into his, a sardonic smile curling his lips.

Ronaldo turned to Sebastian. ‘Tell me about food.’

‘Very well. Our team of chefs prepare the best Michelin-starred cuisine in our purpose-built kitchen in the basement of our mansion.’

Redhead’s giggle was rewarded by a killer-stare from Sebastian. She shrank, visibly.

‘Oysters are flown in from Jersey. Truffles from Italy. Wild grouse from the Highlands.’

What Sebastian didn’t mention was that he preferred simple food, and on the odd occasion Amy was out, he’d ask the chefs to whip up an omelette or cheese on toast or something that didn’t give him chronic indigestion for hours afterwards.

Rich in carbon footprint, more like!’ someone yelled from the audience.

‘A partridge from the pear tree?’ screamed another.

Ronaldo did his best to ignore these impromptu interruptions. ‘Lawrence, what edible delights are you tempted by?’

‘We grow our own food. Ellie tends the chickens—‘

‘Ellie?’ Ronaldo asked.

‘My wife.’ Tears misted Lawrence’s eyes. He blinked them back. ‘She nurtures the herbs and does all the cooking. I run the farm and look after our vegetable patch. Being out in the open air; it feeds the soul.’

Sebastian coughed to control his laughter.

Comments flew from the audience like darts:

‘Bit like the Good Life!’

‘But without Felicity Kendal!’

‘You should see her kneading the bread, flour halfway up her arms, blotches on her nose, the smell of yeast as the bread rises. There’s nothing like a homemade loaf. The crunchy crust, soft and spongy inside and,’ Lawrence swallowed, ‘made with love.’

He pictured Ellie, her brow furrowed with the effort of building the gluten: pulling and stretching, pushing and moulding. When the light caught her blond curls, it created a halo around her head, as if she was indeed destined to rest with the angels.

Several women in the audience sat up a bit straighter and listened a bit harder. Maybe this guy with his odd-looking clothes and weather-beaten face wasn’t such a loser after all. He didn’t look rich, far from it, but there were many interpretations of that one word. Maybe it was worth giving him a chance.

Sebastian shook his head. The closest Amy had come to the kitchen was the time she sent their butler to reprimand the Head Chef for forgetting to slice her lime across the middle. Honestly, a team of Michelin chefs versus a wife pummelling bread in their farmhouse; this had to be a joke! And yet, he imagined a morsel of that home-baked bread melting in his mouth and thought of the rich stews that this blond, domestic goddess would no doubt throw together to accompany it. None of this fussy, fancy food with ridiculous ingredients like samphire scattered everywhere.

‘The taste of fruit and vegetables fresh from our garden is—’

‘Right, Lawrence, I’ll have to stop you there. Hands on your buzzers everyone. Let’s vote!’

A loud ticking increased in volume as the countdown timer reached a crescendo. The lights flashed. The tension mounted.

Lawrence was catapulted back in time to the moment he first set eyes on Ellie. She was standing statue-still, staring up at the old grandfather clock ticking away in his mother’s lounge, her hands clasped tight in front of her. When she turned around, his heart stopped. At the age of 28, for the first time ever, he was in love.

Amy’s cheers, as the gold coin circled next to Sebastian’s name, made everyone in the audience recoil, grateful that they weren’t the ones who had to live with her. At least if you had a parrot, you could cover its cage to subdue the screeching; it was crystal clear that this particular bird would have no volume control at all.

‘Next, let’s talk about clothes.’ Ronaldo turned to Sebastian.

As the designer names slipped off Sebastian’s tongue, Lawrence’s mind drifted to Ellie, rocking in her armchair beside the fire, knitting yet another jumper in preparation for winter.

‘Lawrence?’ Ronaldo was staring at him. Was this contestant all there? Was he on something? This was going to be one challenging show, no doubt about it.

‘Sorry, yes. Ellie adores patchwork. She gathers material like a starling. Her favourite pastime is breathing new life into old things: shirts I’d worn as a teenager, over-sized skirts abandoned at the charity shop, even her mum’s ancient summer trousers.’ Lawrence paused.

The room wrapped itself in silence.

‘I would often fall asleep to the whirring of the sewing machine as Ellie promised to finish off just one more patch.’ Lawrence looked down at his shirt, lovingly quilted in tiny hexagons of vibrant, patterned material. She finished it last month, one day before—’

‘I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Ted Baker?’ Sebastian sneered, as he ran his finger, for the tenth time, around the collar of his shirt and wondered how Amy would have reacted had he worn a T-shirt under his jacket rather than a formal shirt. It didn’t bear thinking about.

Lawrence pursed his lips. ‘The only baker I need in my life is Ellie.’

An ‘ahhhhhh’ rolled around the audience. One person clapped. Much to Sebastian’s fury.

The timer ticked, the audience pressed and the scores were in.

‘Before we move onto Round Three, let’s see how the votes have fallen.’

A large scoreboard lit up the back of the studio. Lawrence and Sebastian’s names appeared in lights. Both men had one large gold coin spinning beside their name. Confusion flickered across Sebastian’s face. What idiots had voted for Lawrence? Were they complete morons? A patchwork shirt; it was laughable.

‘I do love a nail-biting competition.’ Ronaldo’s cheesy grin spread as wide as the animals’ smiles in Nick Park’s animations. ‘Right, onto holidays. Let’s see how exotic we can get.’

‘Skegness?’ Sebastian muttered under his breath, before going into raptures about their ten-million-pound yacht and how they cruised to idyllic islands and dined under the spread of stars, with actual stars joining them, of course. When he had dropped as many names as would fit comfortably into one minute, it was Lawrence’s turn.

‘We managed to get away for a week in January. We hired a little cottage in the Lake District. We held hands and wandered around the lakes. The only things that Ellie loves more than baking, oh and talking,’ Lawrence smiled, ‘are tea shops. So, every afternoon, we tucked into a cream tea with homemade scones smothered in strawberry jam and thick clotted cream. We laughed a lot.’ Love shone out of Lawrence, lighting up his face like a high-wattage bulb.

Inside, however, his equilibrium was crumbling as quickly as the scones from their cream tea. He clenched his fists together. He must not break down. On live TV. He had to finish what he had started. He took a deep breath. ‘And in the evening, we’d curl up in front of the open fire. We’d roast chestnuts and scorch marshmallows.’

‘Very domestic,’ Sebastian commented, wondering what it would be like if he and Amy spent even a few days cramped together like that. It would be unbearable. Her constant whining got on his nerves in their palatial mansion; in a tiny cottage, there would be no way of escaping her. No, he shuddered, he would stick to yachts and star-studded visitors, even if most of them were narcissistic. Although, he decided, he would ask the chefs to sort out a cream tea; it brought back happy memories of childhood holidays.

A gold coin sparkled beside Sebastian’s name. The yacht had won over a cottage in the Lake District, but, Ronaldo stated, it had been a close-call. Only one point between them.

Sebastian’s chest, which had puffed out with the triumph of another win, deflated with a whoosh. One blasted point!

Ronaldo churned out question after question. Sebastian flaunted his wealth and his privilege, cheered on by Amy in the wings. Lawrence spoke his truth, with Ellie fluttering in his heart. Until it was a tie. Six all. The producers would be cheering. Nail-biting endings shot ratings sky-high. Ronaldo was ecstatic.

‘Last question.’ Ronaldo frowned at the card in front of him. Peace? What kind of a question was that? Couldn’t they finish with something a bit more dramatic? This was the last thing he needed, today of all days. His therapist had quite clearly told him to keep away from stress of any kind.

For once, Ronaldo mutinied. Never before had he gone off-script. Not once. But today, he point-blank refused to have peace as the final question. He would pretend that his glasses had misted over; that his eye test was overdue; that he required a new prescription.

‘Best present?’ Ronaldo turned to Sebastian, as he braced himself for the bashing that he knew was about to explode down the wire into his ear.

‘Now you’re talking! How can I choose? There have been so many. Dazzling Star, my prize thoroughbred stallion, from my ex-wife. He is breath-taking.’ Sebastian pictured his ex-wife; at one time, she’d also been breath-taking, that is, until he slipped two rings on her finger. He was determined not to make the same mistake with Amy, but she was wearing him down; bit by bit his resolve was being eroded away as effectively as a sandstone cliff standing steadfast against the pounding waves.

Amy glared at Sebastian, shooting him venomous arrows of hate.

‘My Lamborghini from Amy, well, she’s a real beauty!’ Sebastian added, watching as Amy’s scowl melted into a fleeting grin.

‘Not any old Lamborghini!’ Amy shouted. ‘A raspberry-red Lamborghini.’

Sebastian groaned inwardly.

The intermittent gasps from the audience at these opulent gifts swelled in Sebastian’s breast. There was no contest. He would be the winner of Richer by Far. It wasn’t the cash prize that attracted him, but the kudos. Although his opponent wasn’t exactly what he had had in mind. Beating the pants off an oil-drenched Arab would have been far more satisfying.

‘But my favourite has to be the house in Barbados, a present to myself.’ Beat that, loser! Sebastian silently challenged.

‘Take us on holiday with you!’ screamed a couple of scantily-clad ladies in the front row. Amy tossed her red curls and shrivelled them to nothing with her lemon-sour glare.

‘Lawrence, what about you?’ It was hard for Ronaldo to focus with the director shrieking, ‘Peace, what the hell happened to peace?’ in his ear.

Lawrence stared into the distance. ‘It was the day Ellie gave me her heart. How could any present be better than that?’

The audience burst into spontaneous applause. The timer ticked, the drum rolled, the scoreboard flashed. ‘LAWRENCE MITCHELL IS RICHER BY FAR!’ Ronaldo shouted, holding up Lawrence’s hand as the audience went wild. Amy fainted. Two lowly assistants half-dragged, half-carried her immobile body off the stage. Sebastian’s face turned an ugly shade of puce.

‘So, Lawrence, what’ve you got to say? How will this windfall change your life?’

‘I was Richer by Far.’ Lawrence’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Back then. Ellie told me to come on this programme, to show people that your lives can be rich, without wealth.’

‘And you’ve proved it!’ Ronaldo beamed at this unexpected outcome. It was certain to make the Nationals.

‘Not any more,’ Lawrence said. ‘Today, I’m a fraud. Today, Sebastian is Richer by Far because Sebastian has Amy.’

Sebastian’s brows drew together in a frown. What was he talking about? If anything, Amy made him poorer, a lot poorer. She spent money like water.

‘Yes, and you have Ellie,’ Ronaldo insisted, wanting the show to finish on a high. This guy was even dragging success down.

It was no more than a whisper, but just before the credits rolled, Lawrence’s words touched every heart tuned into Richer by Far that evening. ‘Ellie died,’ he said, letting the tears fall. ‘Last week.’

© Nicky Clifford 2017

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *