Looking After the Pennies
by Rachel Stephenson
See a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck. If you give it to a friend, then your luck will never end. Rose had never bothered with the second part of the saying, but she knew the first bit was absolutely true, and she was going to prove it. She sat at her kitchen table and counted. Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves, that was another one. Well, she was doing just that. Nine stacks of pennies were lined up in front of her like little stubby soldiers and the tenth was under construction. Rose looked at the last five coins in her palm and with her other hand she stroked the attentive head of her rescued mongrel, Toby. Toby and his infamous inquisitiveness had very nearly scuppered her plans last night, and she had nearly lost him in the process to boot. Doing her final count, she had discovered a penny missing from the table, and on turning to look for it had discovered Toby gagging and hacking frantically, obviously with an obstruction in his throat. Two and two had instantly become fourpence and she had slapped his chest firmly several times before seeing the small coin fly out of his mouth, shoot across the kitchen and roll under a sideboard. It was this coin that she now placed on top of the final column. She patted his head again.
She knew all the pennies individually. This one – 1983, very dull, a slight nick just above the queen's head – she had picked up from the pavement just outside her house as she popped out to grab a pint of milk. It had been a warm June day and she had had no pocket except the little one on the breast of her shirt, so she had put her house key in there for safekeeping. As she had bent over to pick up the penny, her key had fallen out and plopped down between the bars of a drain cover. The locksmith had cost a bomb. Fingers splayed, she placed it delicately on top of the pile.
Three to go. This next one was lovely and shiny – 2002, only three years old and flawless. Rose remembered it well. Just last week, tired and weary, she had been about to board the bus home, having carefully counted out all her fare in her accumulated small change, when some tracksuited youths had barged past her, knocking her elbow and sending the coins flying under the wheels of the passing traffic. Scrabbling round to retrieve the scattered five-pence pieces, she had found instead just one glittering penny in the gutter. She had walked home.
Ninety-nine. Another dull and scuffed one. 1991. Rose thought back to the arcade on Blackpool prom. Had she been daft to feed twenty-four two-pence pieces into the machine, to be rewarded with just one penny? It had been one of those transparent-fronted affairs with all the money people had dropped in – plus the odd cheap watch and plasticky necklace – sitting on a shelf, edging ever closer to a precipice with the weight of each coin inserted. Just one penny had tinkled down, but Rose had not been ungrateful, had just added it to her collection. Every penny helps.
One hundred. Just one coin still rested on Rose's palm and she regarded it for a moment before completing her final stack. 2005. Brand spanking new. She had acquired it only yesterday. She had seen the most beautiful dress in town, perfect for her cousin's wedding next spring, and in the sale too, half price. She had taken it to the desk and had been too embarrassed to say no when the cashier told her it was on the wrong hanger and was full price and was that okay? She had dropped the penny change into her pocket and fingered it all the way home.
The final copper column complete, Rose picked up each one in turn, being careful not to push the edges out of line, and she dropped them one by one into a small plastic money bag. One pound exactly in a satisfyingly heavy, fist-sized little package. She looked at her watch. It was half past eleven already and it was half day closing at the Post Office on a Wednesday. She would have to hurry. She grabbed her coat and headed out of the front door.
As usual, her eyes scanned the pavement and the gutters as she walked, so intently that she almost walked right past the Post Office door. She had to jump inside quickly to avoid getting her ankles nipped by the nasty, snarling little terrier from down the road who was tied to the lamppost and was angry at being left outside in the freezing cold. It was a good job she hadn't brought Toby. He wouldn't have stood a chance. “I'd like to change this for a pound coin please,” Rose said to the woman behind the shatterproof screen. The woman didn't even look at her, just took the bag and dropped it unceremoniously onto her scales. Then she opened a drawer that Rose could not see, took out a pound coin and placed it in the little stainless steel trough that separated them. It was a grubby, well used one – 1989, with a lion and unicorn crest and a banner reading Dieu et mon droit, and around the edge it said Decus et tutamen. Rose wondered what all that was about, never having studied Latin. She smiled at the lady and thanked her, then popped it into her pocket and headed next door to the newsagent's. There, she placed her pound coin on the counter and said, “One lucky dip National Lottery ticket, please.” The fat man behind the counter did something with his blue machine then handed her a pinkish slip of paper. “Thank you,” Rose said, smiling.
She studied the numbers carefully. Good – a couple close together and the rest spaced out. That was about right. Then she folded it twice and tucked it ever so carefully down into her pocket and started for home. She felt half a pang of guilt when she passed a shivering young man shaking a collecting tin for the animal rescue centre, especially when he smiled at her so warmly. She returned his smile shyly and consoled herself by thinking of all the good she would be able to do with her forthcoming fortune. She pinned the ticket to the kitchen notice board where it remained, fluttering occasionally when the door was opened but otherwise safe, until Saturday night.
On Saturday night, Rose was perched on the edge of her settee, a mug of milky tea in her left hand and her ticket in her right, and Toby's warm head resting on her knee. The bright, loud lottery programme was almost over. All that was left was the releasing of the balls. Rose watched, rapt. Of course she was going to win. Hadn't this ticket been bought with one hundred individual lucky pennies? First ball – twenty-four. Yes, of course. Second – three. Don't worry, still time, still the bonus ball. Third – forty. Yes. Fourth – seventeen. Yes. Fifth – twenty-two. Yes. Sixth – thirty-six. Yes. Bonus ball – forty-five. Yes, good. Rose wondered how much she had won. A couple of million? A few hundred thousand? She pinned the ticket back to the board, did the washing up and watched a film, then brushed her teeth and went to bed.
Only twenty-three shopping days till Christmas. No wonder the high street was so packed at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning, even if the roads were covered in black icy sludge. Rose was in no hurry. She wrapped her red scarf around her neck, tweaked on her red gloves and buttoned her coat right down, making sure the ticket was safe in her pocket.
“I think I've won some money,” she said to the fat man in the newsagent's, handing him her ticket. He took it without a word and eyed her with suspicion before examining the little paper square closely. Eventually, he looked up and shook his head at Rose. She frowned. “What's wrong?”
“This ticket's for last Wednesday's draw, not yesterday's. Sorry, love.” He held the ticket out to her between his middle and index fingers. Rose wondered why he thought she would want it back.
“Oh.” She was blushing despite the cold. She forced her frozen cheeks into a smile. “Oh well, never mind. There's always next time, isn't there?” She began to wonder how long it would take her to find another hundred lucky pennies, but the fat man had already turned to his next customer.
The three yards between the counter and the door were the longest three yards ever. How could this be possible? Rose demanded as she stepped out into the cold. How could a hundred lucky pennies not become one gigantically lucky pound? She had been so sure. Eyes down to keep track of the icy pavement, her glance soon fell on a small copper coin nestling in a little drift of half-hearted snow. Sheer force of habit made her stoop to retrieve it and she gave a wry smile as she examined its little marks and notches. She raised her elbow to throw it away.
“Ouch! Watch where you're going!” an irate voice hissed in her ear. Rose looked up. So engrossed had she been in her new acquisition that she had walked straight into the man with the charity collecting pot.
“Oh. Sorry.” For a second, Rose was looking into the brightest, brownest eyes she had ever seen, then she recovered herself. “Sorry,” she repeated. “Here – you might as well have this.” She popped the penny into the slot in the man's blue tin.
“You look frozen.” Rose smiled at the young man. “You're not going to be standing out here all day, are you?”
“Well, all those poor abandoned puppies and kittens can't go out collecting for themselves, can they?” He brandished his tin. “No opposable thumbs, you see,” he explained, and he grinned at the weak joke. “Here, let me give you one of these.” He peeled a sticker off a sheet of paper and was about to place it on the woolly lapel of her coat when an arm barged between them to ram a five-pound note into the pot. It was the old man from down the road with his nasty little terrier. “Thank you. What a nice dog.” The young man crouched down to stroke it, and the vicious creature eagerly clamped its jaws onto his hand. The young man swore, the old man growled and Rose looked on in horror. After a brief struggle, the young man stood up, blood oozing from his perforated fingers, and the unrepentant dog was quickly dragged away, still yapping ferociously and straining back towards its victim.
“Oh, you poor thing,” exclaimed Rose, examining the wound. “Let me bandage it up for you. My house is only round the corner.” He really did have the most wonderful eyes, she thought.
“That'd be great,” the young man said gratefully. For a second their gazes met and he smiled broadly.
“My name's Rose, by the way,” Rose informed him, looking away quickly and leading him towards her front gate. “Rose Banks.”
“I'm John. John Fortune.” He was hot on her heels.
Rose could hear the collecting tin rattling as John swung it in his uninjured hand. There was a light clunking under the rustle of the five-pound note. It sounded like it was only her penny in there. She smiled to herself. Maybe there was something in the second part of that saying after all.
©2005 Rachel Stephenson
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