photo from pixabay.com (_Alicja_)
The Silver Sixpence
A Wit: “Why is it when people blow their noses, they always take a good look into the handkerchief? What are they expecting to find there, a silver sixpence?”
It was winter again; I had a snotty-nosed cold that came and went and kept me from fully enjoying my time out-of-doors with my brother, called “wee Bob” by my Uncle Joe, the bon vivant of the family, even among us children. It was the chilliest winter I could remember in all my ten years, which might not have been long, but I was an outdoor girl. Yet I had some hesitations about being in the freezing, bitterly discontented wind, the pelting, hard snow, especially the wetting sleet. Wee Bob just stared gloomily out at the weather from the living room couch back, shoved up against the windowsill where it was, as he was only five and was not allowed to go out without me. I was the big sister, the guardian angel, the one who beat the stuffings out of the boys down the road if they picked on him. Not that he was not known to slap a snowball at one of them from behind one of the huge drifts we had this year–strangely early for the end of November and December’s advent—to whiz a miraculously accurate bullet of snow for a five-year-old at a foe, then duck down and grin up at me. At that point, I stood up and posed atop a white mound, daring our opponents to fire back. And fire back they did, but only half-heartedly, just to “keep up the side” before going on about their own snowball or snow fort business. But for now, it was off-again on-again for the two of us going outside, as the vagaries of my cold and my mother’s varying edicts about the weather and her own convenience with the household chores convinced her that it was good for us to be outside, or not.
After a week of grousing from Bob and complaining from me, my mother decided that it was probably best to let us have our head, before we drove her round the bend and there were three of us out of sorts. On the Saturday she decided to let us go around in the magnanimously fluffy and non-pelting (for a change!) snowflakes falling decorously and softly in their little swirling dances down the mounded white lawn, my Uncle Joe was sitting at the table beside her and my father, having his tea.
Now, my father and mother were having coffee; my mother claimed not even to know how to make a proper cup of tea, or how to buy it, temper the pot, manage the kettle, measure the leaves, any of it. But as Uncle Joe was her brother, and he appreciated the perfect cuppa, he just gleamed wisely from behind his out-of-date moustaches when she said these things, which caused my father to roll his eyes. One of those repeated little family dramas which get their replays with variations every few days or weeks as a form of togetherness.
Uncle Joe, in his general visceral communicativeness and sociability, had even caught my cold, and he was now whuffling and snuffling over the hot, steaming brew and trying not to sneeze. We were shrugging into our clothes to go outside, and moved aside, a bit leery of the upcoming explosion, but not to much avail: when Uncle Joe sneezed, though it was into his handkerchief—a grand affair with his initials embroidered on one corner and made of some fine absorbent linen—the sneeze was an equally grand affair. Though none of us had been covered with anything untidy or germy, we all felt that we had.
Unfazed, my Uncle Joe blew his nose into the cloth and then looked into it for a few seconds, giving it full attention.
“Oh, God, Joe, that’s gross!” my father laughed in protest.
“Besides, it’s rude and so—and—the children—Joe, do you want them to pick up coarse ways?” My mother equally countered her brother’s frank interest in his own physiognomy and its products.
“Ah, but, it’s just a silver sixpence!” insisted Joe, upon being so attacked.
As a worldly-wise ten-year-old, I sneered. “Oh, it is not, Uncle Joe. You’re joking us!”
Still not up to all the rigs, wee Bob shouted, “Let me see, let me see! I’ve never seen a silver sixpence. Where did you get it, Uncle Joe?”
The question was, of course, whether wee Bob even knew what a silver sixpence was. I had little idea myself, though “pence” suggested money, and “silver” meant treasure.
“And won’t you look at that, from 1942, back during the war, when so many coins in Great Britain were made of silver because it was cheaper than other metals in use!” Exclaimed Uncle Joe.
“Spare us your numismatics, Joe,” my father laughed again, “you’re teaching my children bad manners!”
“Ah, and if they’d learned to sneeze properly and clear their airways, then Margery there wouldn’t still have the tail-end of a cold with wee Bob looking like he wants to get it from her any day!” Joe rejoined.
“I’m well, and we’re going outside. See you later, Uncle Joe,” I responded, making signs to wee Bob to hurry up about it before any adults could change their minds about our going out. And we deserted our favorite uncle for his adultlike near-betrayal of us.
Outside, it was just the most perfect day! It was cold, true, and the wind was chafing our cheeks quite red by the time we’d been in the whiteness for five minutes. But the fort from a few days ago was still standing in the backyard, proof that my power in the neighborhood hadn’t waned, due to my carefully dissembled illness, and our sleds were outside the basement just wanting to slip down the hill above the fort into our waiting “stop” zones there. We watched for victims from behind the walls of our fort, made extra tall with the help of my father on one of his days off, and gloated over the pile of as-yet-unthrown snowballs buried in a hidden pit in the fort’s most inside space.
“Ah, here it is now!” spoke a loud, booming voice behind us, making us both jump, I falling into the snow on top of my sled and wee Bob shrieking loudly enough to alert our foes. I shushed him and turned to Uncle Joe, who was now standing in the rear of our fort, holding aloft a bright silver coin in his fingers, turning it this way and that to catch the sun, which humored him as we had not, coming out from clouds previously clustered gray around the skies.
“A silver sixpence! A silver sixpence!” shouted wee Bob, as if acquainted with the phenomenon all his life. “Can I hold it?”
Even I, however, though proof against the fiction of its having come from Uncle Joe’s nose, was not dead set against a look at it, or even a feel of it. Always telling myself, of course, that as it had in no wise come out of his nose, it wasn’t unclean to handle.
We inspected it, and Uncle Joe, departing, tolerated an obligatory couple of snowballs thrown at him as we watched him walk away. Once again sneezing and blowing his nose vigorously, then turning to see us looking, he held up the handkerchief as if it contained further treasures. Then, we entered into the day with earnest abandon, managing to harass and drive from the yard three or four fellow snowballers brave enough to venture into our territory. By the time we were chilled through and ready for cocoa and muffins, we’d forgotten all about Uncle Joe and his cold and his handkerchief and my parents’ distaste for his joke.
“Yes, I need to talk to the cashier at the main window. I don’t think you here at the client desk can help me.”
“But maybe I can, uncle, maybe I can. What is it that you are needing?”
“Uncle. No one has called me that who wasn’t really related to me for a long time. Not since Vietnam and my travelling days, after that. I’ll tell you, it gives me a turn.”
“Do let me apologize for it if it seems to you a discourtesy; it is a title of respect in my country. I have not been here long, and so am a bit raw around the edges, maybe. How can I help you?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it bothered me in a bad way; just brought back something of the past. Well, the fact of the matter is that I’m in the way of playing a bit of a joke on my little niece and nephew. And I need some particular silver sixpences from Great Britain, I guess they call it U.K. now. But ones from about, well, from exactly 1942, as many, maybe, as would come in a roll of quarters, about forty. Wait, excuse me a moment—a-haw-a-haw-a-haw! Huff—huff—huff—whachooo!”
“You must take care of that, uncle, sir, that is a dreadful cold you have! It sounds like the flu, and a sore throat, and I hope not Covid all combined! Please forgive me for being frank. You shouldn’t be here trying to transact business with a condition like that.” The kind voice paused. “But in any case, unless you have much money for this joke, dear sir, it will be too expensive at a bank, especially. I don’t even know if we could get it for you, in fact I rather think not. Forty silver sixpences, costing probably around $22 each, no, too much. Have you sought out any coin collectors? Also likely to be pricey.”
The old man was nearly finished wiping his face. His eyes were reddened and watery, and his face likewise rubicund and moist. His forehead was pale, though, and looked sweaty. But he faced the bank manager, determined though bleary-eyed. “Look, my friend, I’m old. I’m feeling on my last legs. I—”
“Don’t say that, uncle, you have only to take care of yourself! Anyone who could consider spending so much money for a joke upon two children must surely be able to get good medical care. Do you want me to call someone for you?”
“NO! Let me talk, it’s hard enough through this…this…anyway, I need to find about forty, we’ll say, silver sixpences. And the reason I want them from 1942 is because I want them real silver, but not as expensive as the most valuable ones. You’re right that my resources aren’t limitless. So, do you know of any coin collectors I could contact? Is the bank supplied with any, in touch with any?”
“Not that I am aware of, dear sir, and I think that—but you know, there is a street in the city, a town-within-a-town, I do recollect a junk dealer, not so much junk as old things, though he’s called a junk dealer. His name, I believe, is Daniel Mattheas Willford. My cousin once bought a dining set from his collection that seated twelve, an antique set, and was not cheated and was well content. Just one moment, if you please, I will call my cousin at her place of business. If she is able to answer the phone, I may be able to get the address and phone number for you. Do you want a cell phone number or the store number?”
“Store number, please. But likely, I’ll drop by.”
The manager went away and returned again after what seemed to the old man like only a minute, but a prolonged minute, a minute in which shadows came and went in the bank, in which he wished he could sit down across the aisle on the other side, except for not wanting the manager to think he had left precipitately.
“Here you are. And please, dear uncle, think a little more of yourself and a little less of selfish children. Children have the rest of their lives. You are old, and must take care of yourself. Come again, when you are well.”
“But it’s out of the question, Peter, he’s got some sort of lung infection or something, and is at death’s door! Literally, at death’s door! We can’t take the children into his home, however many doctors he has there with him!”
“He only has the one and the attending nurse as far as I know. But I mean, he made it his last wish to see them, and you know how he is, it’s probably for something between them and him, just as a way of saying goodbye. And he is their favorite uncle. And your own brother, after all.”
Even though I was sitting in the dining room, I could hear them arguing in the kitchen; not that they were trying to keep it down, especially not my mother. But my father lowered his voice and spoke calmly and soothingly, and as usually happened when he did that, he won his point. As it turned out, we went to see Uncle Joe for the last time that very night, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm that my father had real difficulty seeing to drive through, the wipers going fast as fast, but still making nearly no headway against the white splats dotting the windshield and road before us.
When we walked into Uncle Joe’s living room, the fire wasn’t lit as it usually had been when we visited during the winter, and it was cold and damp there. My father looked towards the various decanters on the sideboard that Uncle Joe had usually regaled him with, but after staring for just a moment, both he and my mother went to whisper quiet words to the nurse, who true to the sort of old-fashioned form so typical of Uncle Joe’s life, wore a neat hospital-style uniform of starched white, with a small cap on her head and her hair neatly pinned up in a French bun behind.
“Sit down and don’t mess with anything, Margery, Bob, and when it’s your turn to see Uncle Joe, we’ll come and get you. He won’t be up to much talking, and he has lots of germs, because he’s sick and is getting ready, we think, to die. Nothing like the colds you get, you don’t have to worry about dying, we’re here to take care of you. But just don’t get too close around the bed, don’t crowd him, okay?” We nodded and sat nervously, not even saying much to each other while they were out of the room. Bob did get up once or twice and stroll aimlessly around just looking, but he was not breaking the rule not to touch, either.
Finally, my father came back alone. His eyes were sad, his black lashes a little wet, though I hesitated to conclude that he had been crying. “He’s able to see you both now, kids. Don’t expect him to talk too much, though you know how he is. Smile at him, try not to cry. Let him know you love him.”
So right away, of course, as soon as we went in and had a seat side by side to one side of the bed and Uncle Joe was grinning his odd grin at us, wee Bob said, “We love you, Uncle Joe. You know it, right?” I was partly annoyed because he’d gotten in the word first, but also because it seemed so stupid and obvious and direct.
“And me, too, Uncle Joe. I love you, too,” was all it left me to say.
Uncle Joe nodded rapidly at us, tried to speak, but started coughing and my mother shook her head at him and said, “Save your voice, Joe.”
It was sort of awkward, there didn’t seem to be much to say, just thoughts about dying and not dying, and wondering how he felt, which would have been morbid somehow, under the circumstances.
Suddenly, Uncle Joe himself broke the ice. He was watching us, a little sad, wanting to say something, still smiling, though not full of jokes as usual. But his face brightened and he gesticulated to the nurse. She handed him a small bag of something, and he pulled a clean handkerchief out of his sheets below his chin. Then, a wondrous thing: this sick man wrapped the something up in the handkerchief and tossed it to me. It had weight and substance and with my best summer baseball glove hand, I caught it. It was a drawstring bag with things inside, and though my mother darted to take it away, I palmed off the handkerchief it was wrapped in on her and huddled with my brother wee Bob over the bag itself.
While we were pulling the bag open, we heard a croak. We looked up. It was Uncle Joe. Sure enough, he was speaking to us. It was faint, and cough-riddled, but we stopped what we were doing and listened. “I had a lot of sneezes, kids. I collected them for you; a lot of silver sixpences! Twenty each.”
I knew it was a trick, but it was winter magic, all the same. Wee Bob, though, was taken in entirely. He became very distressed: “But Uncle Joe, please, let’s put them back up your nose, please, let’s put them back!”
“Why?” wheezed Uncle Joe. “Why such a dirty ol’ place?”
“So that you can get well and be with us again, and have your tea!”
Uncle Joe laughed then, a horrendous sound in that narrow room. “Here you go, Bobby, you get the last one, mine, just for that!” And he flipped it over to Bob.
And with that, he was gone, expiring in a coughing paroxysm as my father herded us from the room.
Bio: Victoria Leigh Bennett, (she/her). Greater Boston, MA area, born WV. Ph.D., English/Theater. Website: creative-shadows.com. “Come for the shadows, stay for the read.” In-Print: “Poems from the Northeast,” 2021. OOP but on website for free: “Scenes de la Vie Americaine (en Paris),” [CNF in English], 2022. From Fall 2021-Spring 2023, Victoria will have published at least 31 times with: @olympiapub, @Feversof, @HooghlyReview, @TheUnconcourier, @barzakhmag, @bullshitlitmag, @AmphoraMagazine, @press_roi, @thealienbuddha, @LovesDiscretion, @themadrigalpress, @winningwriters, @cultofclio. She is the organizer behind the poets’ collective @PoetsonThursday on Twitter along with Dave Garbutt and Alex Guenther. Twitter: @vicklbennett & @PoetsonThursday. Mastodon: @firstname.lastname@example.org & @email@example.com. Victoria is ocularly and emotionally disabled.