The difference one can make

Simon isn’t really listening.  The Today programme on the radio is just a gentle babble easing him into wakefulness.

He’s about to turn it off when he hears a familiar voice. It’s president Obama. Talking about Nelson Mandela who recently died.

“Never discount the difference that one person can make.”

He’s not sure if Obama is talking about Mandela or quoting Mandela. It’s doesn’t really matter. Whichever one of them it is they’re talking crap.

Simon hits the off button and finishes getting dressed in silence. He thinks about his day. It’ll start with a pile of receipts. One by one he’ll tick them off on the computer and add them to the latest file. The file will return to its shelf waiting to gobble up more receipts next week. At the end of the month the file will close for the final time. It’ll sit on the shelf for another couple of months before being moved to a filing box and disappearing to the basement.

It’ll sit there for at least ten years. Gathering dust. Never opened unless the company suffers an audit. That’s unlikely and even then the chances of that particular file being checked are remote.

It’ll take him all day – like it does every Monday.

The queue at the coffee shop is a short one. Simon arrives at his desk five minutes early. He looks at the pile in his in-tray. What if he just picked it up and stuffed it straight into the file? What if he pressed the select all button on the computer and accepted everything without checking.

It only takes four minutes. He’s not even supposed to have started work yet and he’s already finished everything.

Tomorrow he’ll spend all day on invoices. He doesn’t even make them. All he does it tick a little box to tell the computer whether or not the invoice has been paid.  If the company computer linked to the bank it could check the payments all by itself. It’ll happen soon and then what’ll he do on Tuesdays.

Simon stares out of his cubicle across the large open plan office wondering what difference he can make.

But maybe he misunderstood what Obama was saying. Maybe he meant there’s one special person who makes all the difference. He can’t see any of the other workers but he’s sure he can discount them. They’re not the ones who make the difference.

By Monday lunchtime Simon has completed over half of Tuesday’s work. He couldn’t think what else to do.

The sandwich shop has run out of his usual cheese and chutney. He has to have a different flavour. He’d usually take it back to his desk but today he crosses the road and heads for the small park.

“You got any spare change for a cuppa?”

Simon shakes his head and walks quickly past the man sitting on the floor. He stops. Feels inside his pocket. Lifts out a handful of change and selects a fifty pence piece. As he walks back to the man he adds a pound coin to his selection and then another. Simon knows the price of coffee.

The strange cheese is at least as good as his regular one. Maybe it’s the glow of making a difference. He imagines how his few coins will cause an avalanche of change. Maybe the homeless man will go to the coffee shop and while he’s there will meet someone who offers him a house. He’ll move in and start to paint his walls. But it’s no ordinary decorating. The man will produce a masterpiece. Eventually the painting will sell and the whole wall will be removed. It’ll destroy the house but it won’t matter because the man will buy a penthouse suite with the millions from selling the painting.

“You still here?”

The man shrugs.

“Are you really homeless?”

The man doesn’t answer. Simon walks away.

What’ll he do? He’s finished the invoices. He can’t do Wednesday’s work a day early.  He can’t do a solo team meeting and he can’t produce reports for figures he hasn’t got yet. He spends an hour doing Internet research, which he continues all through the next morning.

“Here,” says Simon.

The man takes the pages and looks quizzically at them.

“You can read can’t you?”

“Look mate, being homeless doesn’t make you stupid.”

“It’s a list of jobs. All within three miles of here. Why don’t you get a job and do something useful with your life.”

Simon takes his sandwich back to his desk. He’d spent all morning making that list. It wasn’t easy. He’d even had to talk to people on the phone.  He’s not sure how to spend his afternoon. He starts looking at houses. There are loads. But realistically even if the homeless man gets a job he isn’t going to be able to afford any of them. Even Simon who is well paid can only afford a bedroom in a shared house.


“You again.”

“It’s a list of hostels. Places you can spend the night.”

“I got a place.”

“I thought you said you were homeless.”

“So what do you want me to do? Sleep on a bench.”

“If you’re not homeless you shouldn’t be begging. That’s misrepresentation that is.”

“You haven’t a fucking clue have you mate.”

Simon thrusts the list back at the man. The man bats it away.

“I don’t need you telling me what to do, or how to live.”

“You’re a drain on society. You ought to do something useful.”

“Piss off or I’ll get you for harassment.”

 “At least I’m doing something with my life,” Simon tells the man.

“Yeah right. Your job changes the world does it? Makes a difference? Makes things better?”

Simon scoops up the list of hostels and dumps it in the bin. He then pulls it back out. He’ll put it in the recycling. He does his bit.

The man’s gone. Simon walks all around the park but he’s not there. Simon sits on a bench and eats his lunch. Maybe he’s got a job. Maybe he’s actually a brain surgeon and all he needed was Simon’s encouragement to get back to work. He’s probably already performed two life saving operations on kids with cancer.

Simon’s own life is back on track. He’s had the team meeting. He started on the sales reports. It’s been a good week. The sales team have done well. More people signed up for the dental plan. More dental receipts for Simon to file. More standing orders to check each month.

He does his bit.

Without him the company wouldn’t be able to take money off people. The dental lottery would collapse. Most people would be better off but the few who have dental emergencies would be in trouble. They’d have to pay more.

He’s saving them a whole world of pain. Surely that’s enough.

The place the man usually sits is empty. But Simon notices chalk writing on the pavement.

“Don’t ever believe you can’t make a difference. You have.” Barack Obama

“Yeah, right,” says Simon. He shakes his head and walks home.

The homeless man turns to Legless Larry.

“I think I got him.”

“I’m sure you did. I could see it on his face.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“You can’t tell. But you’ve sown the seed brother. That is one man who no longer sits comfortably in his skin.”

“Do you think he will change?”

“Who knows. We can only hope. But you won’t get to see it. I need you back in the City.”

“The City? It’s what burned me out in the first place.”

“There’s a banker that needs a poke. He passes St. Pauls cathedral at 7.45 every morning. Sit on the steps and see what difference you can make.”

The homeless man heads home smiling. He’ll take tomorrow off. Have a long weekend and then start his new job on Monday morning. It’s going to be an early start. But he doesn’t mind. Not when his job makes such a difference to people’s lives.

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