Twenty Pence

Sometimes 20p is a little, and sometimes it’s a lot.

Image Credit: 
Blitz1980 / Creative Commons / Image Edited

It was a beautiful evening. The autumn had come and swept away the heat, but in a way that made the darkness refreshing. While the sky was dark, it was still a deep blue, and bright enough to see the bats as they shot between trees and chased the insects.

Mum was fidgety, as always, when waiting for the bus. I just enjoyed watching the leaves fall from the black and into the glow of the only streetlamp along the country lane. It was the only way, it seemed, to feel the passage of time before the bus showed up – which was always invariably late.

Every so often there would be a clatter from the pub across the road. A regular would stumble out, burping into the wind and wave out at us.

“See you t’morrow, Claire,” they’d call to Mum. She’d tighten her grip on my fingers and wave back. They’d taste their cigarettes like they were fine wine, then disappear, back into the noise inside.

Then it was silence again.

My stomach rumbled. I remember because Mum looked at me in a way that pleaded apologies, and held my hand. I smiled back, because this wasn’t new. This was the evenings, as I’d always known them. Sometimes it’d be snow I’d watch falling, and other times it’d be rain. We’d snuggle beneath an umbrella and listen.

“May I have a bag of sweets from Edwards?” I asked, already imagining the ones I wanted to pick. A penny a sweet. I could have gotten as many as fifty sweets with that.

“Of course,” Mum whispered back to me. “I’ll let you have the change from the ticket.”

Naturally, when I heard the bus arriving, I leapt up from my seat and waved it down. It squeaked as it rolled into the stop, and Mum pulled me backwards to let someone off.

“Patience,” she whispered and nudged me up onto the bus.

The driver was a shadow to me. A figure beneath a hat with a down turning mouth. He grunted at the sight of me, and I instinctively backed up into the safety of my mother’s coat. She laughed nervously and reached out with the money.

The rest was gibberish to me, always was. I slunk under Mum’s arm and ran to the back of the bus, ignoring the dankness of the dull light, and eager to pick the long seat. Mum joined me soon after, holding her purse in her hands with the delicacy of a china doll.

Then the bus jittered, jolting just a little, but enough to throw me from the seat. Looking over to the driver, we saw the doors slide open. The driver grunted again, and I looked to Mum for the reason, but she looked as confused as I was.

Then we heard running.

“Thank you!” someone called. A woman. A young woman. She stepped onto the bus red faced, panting, and bleating as she rummaged through her pockets. “A single to town, please.”

“That’s £2.40,” said the driver.

I heard change clatter, and scraping as it was collected.

“You’re twenty pence shy,” the driver said.

“Oh!”

I peered over my seat again. She was a student, I imagined. That or a business woman with a suitcase far too big for regular paper. She wore a skirt, a knitted pink hat with a matching scarf. She had the kind of blonde hair that the movie stars had, with it behaving perfectly despite her recent sprint.

Then she turned to see Mum and I, and Mum wrapped her arm around me.

Whoever she was, she was worried. Through her thick rimmed glasses, from the end of the bus, I could see it. She had the same sort of fidget as Mum. Glancing shots, a stammer in her tone.

“I don’t have it,” she said after another rummage through her pockets.

“Then you don’t have a ticket, neither,” grunted the driver.

I looked up at Mum, and then the purse.

“What about us?” I asked, pointing to the silvers that were inside.

“What about us?” Mum hushed back.

“It’s only twenty pence,” said the woman, but the driver dismissed her. “It all adds up. Might as well not charge people. Get off. I’m already late.”

“Wait!” I called, but Mum put her hand on my shoulder and I watched the woman step off. There was a look she had, one that I can never forget but never quite describe. Maybe fear, maybe embarrassment, maybe anger. A collection of all three, probably.

The bus drove away, and I watched that expression fade into the darkened distance. When I turned back, Mum was angry.

“I am giving you the change because you deserve it,” she said. “If she was stupid enough to not have the foresight to plan for these things, then she didn’t deserve it.”

“Hear, hear!” said the driver.

And I bit my tongue, and I never bought those penny sweets.

* * * * *

Mum had been silent for some time, staring at the newspaper. Her hands were still, but tense. Her eyes hadn’t left the headline, the one screaming DEAD IN A DITCH, with the image of a pink-hatted missing girl just underneath it.

My tongue came free, and the words were venom that left my lips.

“Did she deserve this?”

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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