Old Coppers – short story by Lynne Maclagan

592px-British_pre-decimal_halfpenny_1936_reverse

I loved Nan’s at weekends. Matthew is her friend and he’d come over for supper. Then we’d play cards. Only one game, then bed. No messing. And a promise that he might still be there in the morning. He flicked his ash into the fireplace, the grey flecks disappeared amongst the coals. They drank whisky from her special glasses and we dipped in our pinkies for a taste. Matthew laughed at our faces.

We played for coppers or matches. Jayne liked to play for coppers. Real money. The coppers made my hands smell, like all the people who’d touched them before, and all the purses and pockets they’d been in. Nan washed the coins for me in vinegar and water.

I can’t figure out how Jayne won all the time. She’s the younger one, Nan must’ve helped. I watched them pick up their cards, I watched their faces, I studied their hands looking out for the peeling ace of clubs or the king of hearts bent through the middle.

Our bedroom was darkness. No crack in the curtains or moon shining in. Not even shadows could dance on the walls. Sometimes we were still awake when the door would come open and their heads crept round. We listened for their footsteps and we talked till we slept.

‘He laughs funny,’ Jayne said.

‘He laughs loud.’

‘He’s bad at cards, but he wins more than you.’

‘ That’s cause you’re a cheat.’

‘You’re a loser.’

I pulled her hair. Hard. She screamed and pulled my hair till my head hit the wall. I pinched the soft skin on her arm and she pushed the pillow on my face. She held firm as I tried to wriggle her off, tickle her sides.

‘What’s all this noise?’

Jayne wasn’t allowed to stay up and play with us the next night. It was me and them. I won my first game.
Matthew sometimes came over to Nan’s with other friends and they’d play cards in the front room. We were not meant to stay up these nights, but my tummy would ache or I would hear noises from under the bed. They never sent me back.

Edna was my favourite. I told Matthew this.

I brought her my drawings of fairies dancing in trees. They were big tall evergreen trees where no-one walking past could see what was going on and the fairies held dances where they showed their skills. One of them could build houses out of branches and another build a car from leaves. Edna looked at them and I told her the stories of each fairy. She’d nod and smile and go back to her game.

‘There are bears in our wardrobe,’ I said to her.

‘There are no bears through here my darling.’

She taught me how to shuffle. Her fingers were long and quick. She’d split the cards and I loved to feel the breeze on my face when they rippled back together.

They mostly played for notes and fifty pences. I watched their faces held firm as they picked up a card and decided where to place it in their hand.

Edna talked of when she hid under tables, that she hadn’t needed no bomb shelter. She talked of the firemen and the noise. She’d lived in the city then and at night it was as dark as the country. She smoked as she talked but she didn’t suck the life out of it the way Matthew did. A light mist of smoke seeped from one corner of her mouth, a silky pink kiss left on the stub. I pursed my lips and felt the warm air come out through my teeth.

I took some of Nan’s matches. I taped them together and sat behind the greenhouse and talked to the plants as if they were Matthew and Edna. I tipped my head back and laughed, waved my fiery stick through the air.

At Nan’s we were to be treated like grown ups if we behaved like grown ups. We could help ourselves to the biscuit barrel any time we liked. We were taught how to set the table for supper and how to make tea. Jayne filled the kettle and I put it on the heat. Jayne put in the tea bag and I poured in the steamy water.
‘You should drink tea Matthew. It’s warming.’

‘Ok, you’re the boss tonight.’

I brought him a cup. ‘Try it with your pinkie,’ I said.

He unscrewed the cap of his shiny silver bottle and poured into the cup.

‘That’ll taste just fine.’

He brought Jayne his old car magazines and I got ones about people who lived long ago. He always had time to look through every page with us and I showed him the pictures and asked him questions.

‘No I didn’t go to any war, someone had to feed those still at home.’

Nan slapped the arm of her chair and laughed, ‘Oh here we go.’

Then it started. How they always made us laugh as they decided their punishment for each other.

‘Argue with me and I’ll not be driving you to the markets next week.’

‘Start with that and there’ll be no eggs on toast for lunch.’

Mum was with Nan and we weren’t allowed to go in to see them. Nan needed complete rest. Matthew was fixing the gutters and we were to keep out of his way. We played in the front room. Cobwebs hung in the corners and we aimed for them with rubber bands. We played the cloud game. We each slammed our fists on the arms of the sofa and blew the dust into a mist over the other’s face.

We heard the sound of the front door opening and Nan’s shopping being brought in.

‘He’s here,’ Jayne squealed.

‘Here, you take the money.’

‘You’ve to do it.’

She pushed the money onto my lap and ran to put her ear to the door.
The curtains shook in the breeze and I felt myself swaying with them as I stood. I couldn’t swallow. In the mirror hung low on the wall I looked at a girl with her mouth hanging open and a blotchy face. I clutched the coins tightly in one hand, their stench melting into my skin. In the other the notes became soft and moist.

‘Hello?’ said his voice from the hallway.

Jayne looked through the keyhole.

‘It’s Kevin. It’s him.’

‘He’ll hear you through the door.’

‘You have to speak to him this time.’

Jayne opened the door and I pushed her out and followed behind.

‘Hi girls. I’ve put the shopping in the kitchen. Matthew’s put the ice cream and fish fingers in the freezer.’

Jayne giggled and I elbowed her in the side. ‘Here’s your money,’ I said and held out my hands.

‘Where’s your Nan today?’

His face was burning pink from the walk up the hill, a light bead of sweat rolled down his forehead resting above his eyebrow.

‘She’s to stay in bed still.’

‘That’s been a long time.’

I could feel the heat from his body as he took the notes first, stuffing them in the back pocket of his jeans. I read the badge on his polo shirt Kevin Barnett. Seeing his name on the shiny plastic made him even more real. I had seen it and had said his name in my head. I knew him. Jayne thinks he’s thirteen, but he’s got to be older to be working in the Spar.

‘I’ll see you two next week.’

He closed the door and I listened to each of his footsteps on the gravel path until got to the road.

‘You love him,’ Jayne chanted.

‘No I don’t.’

‘You want to marry him.’

I moved to get her and she ran down the corridor into the kitchen and slammed the door shut. I heard the back door fly open.

The garden was overgrown and she could’ve been anywhere. I checked behind the greenhouse and the blackcurrant bushes thick with leaves and unpicked fruit. The door to the coal shed was slightly open. I tiptoed up the steps and edged my face towards the gap. I could see something move and heard breathing deep in the dark. The brick walls were covered in thick black dust, and the only light came from the crack in doorway. I pulled it open a little more. It was not one but two figures, pressed up against each other, pressed up against the filthy wall. I could see the glint of faces in the gloom. I knew I should move away and close the door. Matthew turned his head to me, his lips shining and eyes blinking in the light. Edna hid her face in his chest. Their faces were streaked with coal dust. He reached out and moved towards the door. I slammed it shut and ran in through the kitchen, closing the door, sliding the bolt across into its stone hole.

I stuffed my hand into the biscuit barrel and pulled out a handful andshoved them into my mouth one after another, crunching and swallowing as fast as I could. Crumbs puffed from my mouth and sprayed on the counter top. Biscuit after biscuit I pushed them in. My cheeks swelled and my face reddened. A mush of biscuits stuck to the top of my tongue. I chewed and swallowed giant chunks, and choked on little dry crumbs that caught up the back of my throat. I couldn’t stop it. Soft and slow it all came back out and landed like warm lumpy sand on the tiled floor. I coughed over the floor and more came, missing my shoes but seeping under the cupboard and spreading across the floor. I grabbed paper towels and piled them on top. His breakfast newspaper. I pulled off the sheets and scooped it all up and threw it in the bin. My hands shook as I mopped the last of it up with the dishcloth, rinsing off the chunks in the sink.

I found Jayne up Nan’s tree on lookout. We didn’t talk about Kevin. Or Matthew. The sun bursting through the leaves bounced golden patterns off our faces. We could see into Nan’s house and down to the house at the end of the road. The boys from next door were chasing ducks and nearly getting them. The biggest boy was throwing stones.

I could see Nan in the room she couldn’t come out of any more. Mum feeding her and stroking her head, sorting the sheets. I called and waved.
‘Nan look, we’re monkeys.’

Climbing, swinging, singing. I had my branch and Jayne had hers. Mine was up high and worn smooth like the pebbles we’d collected from the beach. Jayne’s was lower, knobbled and thick. She couldn’t swing on hers like I could on mine.
I remember showing her how to do it.

‘I’m like a sloth!’

I remember showing her how to hang with one arm, how to somersault round.

I swung upside down. Legs hooked. Arms dangling. I don’t know if it was a crunch or a snap. Sometimes I think it was a snap, so loud in my ears. But it felt like a crunch, as I slipped and twisted to the ground, my arms and legs gouging against the thorny twigs. My head last on the earth. Darkness.

Nurses come in and out. I know one name. Dorah. I don’t know anyone else in the world called Dorah. She’s my new best friend and she tells me news from the day. There will be robots that will do her job one day. She switches on our TVs, fills needles with blood, gives me pills to swallow. Puts her hand on my shoulder and see you later alligator.

I sing old songs in my head. Songs that I can’t remember how I know. Mum and Jayne bring me a teddy with buttons for eyes from the shop downstairs. Jayne doesn’t speak, but she draws a picture of a smiling sun on my cast. Mum talks. She talks about Nan. She talks about the journey back to get me and the man on the bus who smelled of fish.

I’ve been asleep and want to wake up. The crunch at the bottom of the tree. I feel it faster each time I sleep. I dream of thuds. Coming out the flumes too fast, my head crashing on the tiled floor and the water filling red around me. Cars tipping over cliffs and my face on the rocks. I dream of Nan standing over me. I hear nothing, but I feel it all.

Matthew’s here and mum looks sad. The room is filled with words and I can’t understand any of them. I look around for Dorah. Mum is yelling and Matthew looks at me with eyes saying sorry. Mum’s pointing at me and spitting words at him.

Jayne is in the corner sucking the sleeve of her cardigan. I try to speak and my voice vibrates in my head. Nobody turns. Nobody hears. I blink and blink and blink waiting for it all to stop.

The silver bottle. I remember that now. How the biscuits were all over my face and I’d wiped my sticky lips on his jacket hanging on the back of the kitchen door. I’d reached into his pocket and taken it out and looked at my blurry reflection, my dark eyes staring back from its shiny surface. And I took it up the tree.

‘Is that Matthew’s?’

‘So what if it is.’

‘You shouldn’t have taken it.’

‘You want to try some?’

I unscrewed it, tipped the juice into the cap. Thrilled with the thought of taking something of his, of getting caught, I dipped in my pinky. Jayne dared me to take a sip. I dared her back and she wouldn’t. I had tried it with Edna. I’d learned to like the smell and had felt the burn on my lips. How you sip it and swallow. I tipped it back and one, two, three. I showed her how.

(IMAGE accreditation: England_half_penny_1936_(B).jpg: Philippe GiabbanelliDerivative work: Retroplum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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