One fine day I found a penny.
I don’t know about you, but I pick up money when I find it, no matter what the value. “See a pin and pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck,” is how the old saying goes, isn’t it? But that was for the old days. For my purposes, when I come across money in the street, I say to myself softly “See a penny, pick it up”, hoping that the rest of the saying goes without … saying.
My method for picking up money is the typical one: I crouch down and pretend to do up my shoelace, then take the coin — or if I’m very lucky, the note — in my fingers, move it to my palm, close my fist, get up and walk on. I don’t put it in my pocket immediately, though; that would be a dead giveaway.
All this subterfuge for a penny? Yes. It would be a little embarrassing, after all, if someone you knew saw you making a point of picking up a penny. “Poor chap,” they might think, “he really is desperate … or crazy.” Of course, if we were talking about a note, then the pretence of the shoelace would be to avoid someone saying “Hey, that’s mine — I’ve just dropped that!” And you wouldn’t want to be seen to argue on the issue, so you’d just hand it over. At least I would. Call me Mr Gullible.
Anyway, so I saw this penny outside the local post office, lying between the cobbles there on the narrow band that separates the pavement and the kerb from the street proper. I did the shoelace thing, and I was almost hit by a passing cyclist in the process, belying the “all day long you’ll have good luck” part of the saying. The things she called me! And the things I wanted to call her back!
I palmed the coin and continued on my way, only opening my hand to take a look at it once I’d rounded the next corner. It was a bit of a beaten-up old thing, probably run over by many cars, but I assumed it was still legal tender. As I like to do with found money, I made a little wish and slipped the coin into my pocket.
Then I went about my business, which on this particular day — in fact on most days, if the truth be told — consisted of wandering around the town, pretending to be interested in shop windows and hoping to bump into someone (anyone) I might know.
As I wandered, I wondered: where did my new-found penny come from? Maybe someone had been in the post office, was putting their change in their purse or pocket, and it escaped. Or maybe the previous owner had a hole in their pocket and it fell through. Or — and I can’t imagine how someone could do this — the person simply threw it away like a piece of litter. Whatever, it was mine now and I put my hand in my pocket to touch it as it nestled there; it felt reassuring somehow.
And then I forgot all about it.
One evening, about a week later, I found myself in a deserted convenience store in what for me was an unfamiliar part of town. I’d gone out of my way because it was the only place open at that late hour; I had a touch of indigestion and was looking for something to ease it. It was a scruffy little establishment, with dusty tins on dusty shelves and a shopkeeper, in his 60s I imagined, who looked like he needed a good dusting down himself.
I was in one of the aisles, bending down to check the items on a low shelf, when someone brushed past me. It was innocuous contact on the face of it, but — and here you’re going to have to believe me — I felt something in the air. Don’t ask me to describe it too precisely; the nearest I can manage is that it was like a brief but gentle vibration that nudged my chest and settled in my stomach.
I stood up and saw that it was a woman of about my age. She was a couple of yards from me in the same aisle, inspecting the feminine hygiene products. If she’d seen me she might well have found it a little disturbing: I was openly gawking, smitten by the vibration. She didn’t seem to notice me, though; she chose something and went to pay. I peeked over the top of the shelves.
“Are these the only ones you’ve got?” she asked the shopkeeper. “Nothing cheaper?”
“Only ones,” he muttered, looking up from the evening paper he was reading. He put the box into a small plastic bag.
There was a clatter of coins as the woman emptied her purse onto the glass top of the counter. She slid the coins into little groups, totting up the total.
“I’ve only got £2.48,” she said with a little laugh.
“They’re £2.49.” The shopkeeper said, fixing her with a steady gaze.
The woman smiled, obviously thinking he was joking … until she realised that he wasn’t.
“Yeah, but … come on, give us a break. You’re the only place open round here, and I—”
“£2.49.” The old man’s face was a mask of determined surliness.
“You can’t be …” A note of desperation replaced the irritation in the woman’s voice. “Look, I’d pay by card but I don’t have it with me, so I’ll come back tomorrow with the difference. Is that all right?”
I could hear her sharp intake of breath. The old man went back to his newspaper, apparently convinced that that was the end of the matter. The woman stayed where she was, seemingly weighing up her options.
You know those stories of heroes who do things like diving in front of an oncoming train to whisk clear a child that’s fallen on the line? Well …
“Excuse me!” I emerged from the aisle, surprising them both. I addressed the old man.
“I couldn’t help but overhear that this lady is a little short on her payment. Perhaps I might be so bold as to …”
And I placed on the counter a penny, the penny that I’d been carrying round in my pocket for a week.
All of this — my decision to intervene, remembering the penny, digging in my pocket to retrieve it, deciding what to say — came in a perfect rush and was most unlike me, a person who would normally walk half a dozen blocks to avoid any type of minor confrontation.
I didn’t wait for the old man to say or do anything but picked up the woman’s purchase, took her by the arm and hustled her out of the shop.
Once in the street, her anger got the better of her.
“What a ba— … what a really horrible bloke!” she gasped, taking the bag that I handed to her. “And sorry. Thank you so much.”
My ‘heroism’ had given way to a kind of default awkwardness. I mumbled something incoherent and made to leave the scene, but before I’d gone two paces she pulled me back by the sleeve.
“Hang on,” she said. “I want to pay you back.”
“Don’t be daft, it was only a penny.”
“It was more than a penny. It was … a gesture, a very kind gesture. And I’m very grateful.”
Her warmth was contagious. I felt the awkwardness dissolve and something of the heroic return, enough for me to say:
“Well, then … Would you let me buy you a coffee?”
She looked me in the eyes and for the first time I noticed, by the light from the store window, that hers were the most exquisite green. I took her pause for reticence, based on suspicion.
“No strings attached,” I added.
She laughed and held up the bag.
I realised that what I’d said might have sounded like a bad and utterly inappropriate pun. I was preparing an apology when she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away towards a nearby café.
Was it just coffee? Well, on that particular evening it was, but as soon as I learned her name, I knew I couldn’t possibly leave it at that.
Fast-forwarding a year or so, we’re immensely happy together and we’re now expecting our first child, a girl. We made a pretence of searching on-line for baby names, but it could really only be one. We’ve decided we’re going to name her after her mother: Penelope.