Coins

Anh-Khoi Nguyen

 

Yet another hole. Just above the hem, an inch above her beltline. Another fiddly rip unravelling the faded navy blue fibres of her favourite jumper into a handstitched rendition of the Isle of Wight that lets in wind and water and makes her spine stiffen with the cold, and her skin crawl with the damp. Whenever it’s raining, whenever it’s windy, Nina shuts her eyes and rubs her hands against her ribs and feels like an empty wooden seaside cottage, gnawed to the bone by decades of mould, impossible to heat, leaking and creaking and begging for renovation or wrecking ball. And tonight it’s windy, tonight it’s raining.

            Pissing down in finger-thick stacks, licking every uncovered corner of the world into a glossier version of shitness. She used to joke with Leeya, about how it would be if instead of rain all the water in the clouds poured down in one big swooshing whirl of condensed wetness, like God emptied a massive fucking bucket over England in the vain hope of finally flushing out the posh wanks that told them off for playing football on the street. The bucket, they used to call it. Watch out for the bucket, for broken umbrellas in the gutters instead of autumn leaves, for shredded summer dresses on pavements. She used to chat shit, arms flailing, throats sore from hours of goofing around. The bucket. Laughing, heads under hoodies while hurrying between school buildings, a million lunch breaks and a thousand lives ago. Now, alone, Nina pulls her hood deeper into her face, blows on the inside of the jumper to feel the outside of her skin, feel something that isn’t numb, or cold, or wet.

            With the steady liquid drum roll around her ears, she doesn’t hear the car coming until it’s too late to jump away. Though even if she had, her bones are so clammy, so achy, she might have just stayed put. Not that it matters. The tidal wave the tyres stir up shoots so high and wide she doesn’t have the teeniest bit of a chance to dodge it. Froth sprays her eyes, a dozen small waves ride the big one, and tumble. And then it slaps her, face to feet, a solid plank of ice that doesn’t shatter but sinks, through and through and into her. And she’s sure if she breathes out now it won’t steam up. Some of it’s in her mouth, lots of it in her eyes, and she blinks and spits and coughs for a full minute. It tastes like petrol and burns like bleach.

             When the runny blurriness clears and the street trickles back into high-resolution, she gets a bit of a jump. Something dark has appeared across the road, shifts and grows and it gets her nerves all wound up for a second before it floats into the milky amber shimmer of the streetlight. Just a bloke. Walking towards her, striding, really. Long black coat billowing in the wind as he cuts through the ankle-high water, crossing to her side. Still a bit shaken, after the car, after being splashed, from the man suddenly being there, Nina takes a second to take a breath. Then she empties the Costa cup she picked up a day ago. A few copper coins skitter out with the rainwater. But fuck it. Not enough to buy a handshake for. And maybe this guy is loaded.

            And there he is. Tall, but they all are when you’re on the ground. His coat whips this way and that, and snaps and cracks, too. Gloves made of leather. Sort of. Not that she knows shit about it. Bit like dried skin, all wrinkly, like someone died sunbathing and was just left lying too long? She shakes herself and raises her eyes to his face, raises the cup while at it. Nothing special about him. Another bloke who thinks he’s the dog’s bollocks, and she’s already forgetting his face. What’s a bit weird though, he looks dry, hair to boots. And he’s wearing a dress shirt, like any posh business type, but no tie, and the white collar’s propped up. Shakes herself again. “Spare some change, sir?”

            He’s grinning like she’s just cracked a real howler. “Good evening to you, too.” Deep voice. Talks like Mrs Faraday, the headmistress at her school: not from anywhere, just south of here. And lots of money. Something shiny pops up between his glove-wrapped fingers. She lifts her cup more. It’s a coin, she knows it is, and he’s just fucking with her ‘cause he knows she won’t make a fuss about it. And there, yes, it is a coin, and he’s starting to do this stupid trick they do, twirling it down his fingers and up again, like a spinning top on a flight of stairs. She waits, stays calm, and pictures punching his face in.

            “Cats and dogs, my dear, cats and dogs. You might be made of marble, but this rain is bound to wash you away before the cockerel comes calling.”

            “Yes, sir. It’s horrible, sir.” Holding up the cup just the tiniest bit further.

            “Why don’t you get yourself somewhere dry?” Coin still pirouetting in his fingers.

            “Closed the shelter a month ago, sir.”

            “Is that right. What about the tower? Bound to be dry under the tower.”

            “Put up spikes, sir. A week ago.”

            “Is that right.” He smiles at the sky above his right shoulder. Something’s on his neck, something dark, but before she can get a good look he turns back and it’s all covered by the collar. “Some things never change, it seems, and if they do, they don’t for long.” The coin flips a final time and catches between index finger and thumb. He holds it out for her to see. Not a pound, not two pounds. Size of a digestive biscuit, and all golden. “Take this.”

            She leans forward and frowns. “Can’t buy nothing with that, innit?”

            He grins and brings the coin closer to her face. “If you take this, you shan’t need to worry about buying anything for a while.”

            You learn a thing or two out between the cracks. And she smells a dodgy deal when it’s under her nose. “What d’you want?”

            “Settle a bet for me. Take this, and you can have anything you want.”

            “But?” Always a but, with that lot.

            His teeth glitter like icicles. “But. You can’t give this to anybody else.”

            “You mean I can’t use it to buy stuff?” What’s the point?

            And for a second she gets a look on what’s on his neck, and it’s scars, black scars, rings and lines and rings linked up like the chain that made them. “You shall see.”

 

***

 

The silk duvet slips from her shoulders. Heart’s jackhammering her ribs and she’s panting like she’s just fallen off the treadmill.

            “What’s wrong?” Neel’s hand finds hers, his voice still in dreamland. “Nina?”

            “Just a dream.” She shifts around in the dark to touch his arm. Everything’s wet. Tank top and panties cling to her in a film of salty slickness, and sheet and pillows feel like they spent the night in the rain. “Nothing’s wrong.”

            It’s their free day, what they’ve been looking forward to all week. And it’s raining. But that’s okay. They don’t get up till afternoon, and Neel brings breakfast to the bed. Almond croissants, sweet tea with soy milk. She only moves to get downstairs, then pretty much glues her butt to the sofa. Both of them have been so busy, lately, and there’s lots of catching up to do. With a documentary, very binge-worthy, and a period drama. Not so much. And this being the first time in days they had more than an hour just by themselves, other catching up comes to mind, Neel’s fingertips slipping under her shirt as the credits roll, travelling along gentle lines only he can navigate so well, softly brushing skin electrified, touches turning into sparks.

            They try a new Moroccan place that does delivery when her stomach grumbles. The vinyl he got her for Christmas plays in the background. String and piano warmth envelops them from four directions, and softly accented words lull her eyes shut as Neel clears the dishes. It’s their day. Her day.

            At six he wakes her with a kiss behind her ear. They have to get ready. Everyone’s meeting up in their favourite Japanese place for dinner, and then for drinks and trippy jazz in the bar next door. Nina feels so lazy, she thinks about not going. Just for a second. But reservations have been made and they haven’t seen their friends in a while. Plus, she doesn’t get to split her bad conscience about too many tropical cocktails with that many friends all that often.

            When she opens the door it’s like she’s stepped out of one shower into another. The rain’s gotten apocalyptic, the wind racing to keep up in wildness. Neel hands her the sturdiest of their umbrellas, and she throws up the hood of her coat to be safe. No point spending twenty minutes on hair and makeup when the rain can ruin it in as many seconds.

            They manage to get from their cul-de-sac to the street without her stepping into any puddles. But their cab isn’t there. Probably the rain, probably the same everywhere, but she’s getting cold, so Neel gets on the phone while she does a slow round to keep warm. There’s an alley that leads off towards the centre which she normally avoids. But it’s raining, it’s windy, and Neel’s waiting, so this time she walks through to keep it short.

            Nearly drops her umbrella when she turns left, and the wind snatches it from her anyway. The stainless steel sings a bright note as it hits the pavement and whistles a soft octave when it sails off into the air. It doesn’t get far.

            A sleeping bag sits on the landing of the corner shop, and in the bag sits a slight figure in a hoodie, and in fingers protruding from patchy cotton sits her umbrella. Breezed by just in arm’s reach of the faceless misery shrouded in navy-blue, the sudden somebody who made her jump. Nina doesn’t move. The homeless folds up the umbrella. Twirls it. Holds it out to her.

            She’s not scared. Just careful. Slow steps, short steps, three steps and she stands in front of and over the hooded homeless, who doesn’t move at all.

            “Thank you.” Nina’s fingers immediately wet through her gloves as she grips the umbrella. “Quite a storm, isn’t it?”

            “It’s horrible, miss.” A woman’s voice.

            And though Nina knows that shouldn’t mean anything, a dozen coils of tension unwind around her spine, and she gets out her wallet in a heartbeat. “Isn’t there somewhere dry for you to go?”

            “Closed the shelter a month ago, miss.” Scratchy monotone. Roll-ups from bins, indifference from shoppers.

            “What about the tower?” Praying she has coins left. Not that she’s cheap, but it would make things too weird to hand over a tenner.

            “Put up spikes there, miss.”

            “Oh.” She can feel a coin, a single coin, but she isn’t looking. Underneath battered tonsils and hardened resignation, there’s something she knows in that voice. Somebody she knows. “I’m sorry, but - have we met before?”

             And Leeya looks up and flashes her big grin, her million dollars, the teachers used to call it, the two big rows of sunshine that say gotcha and fuck you and love me all at once; just brown-stained, yellow and with a big hole right in the middle, where she would whistle through to turn all heads in the schoolyard, but only ever mean to call one friend. “Wouldn’t mind the bucket now, have it fucking over with, eh, Nina?”

            And the coin’s from the wallet in her palm, from her palm in her fingers; too big, too clean, too bright, like someone caught a thousand fireflies and moulded them into this disk of pulsing smoothness, and Nina doesn’t think twice, doesn’t think once before she holds it out in front of her, and Leeya doesn’t take the coin but grabs her whole hand, and all the while it’s raining like God’s got a tear for every excuse she’s ever made for all the hours they haven’t shared.

 

***

 

Four fingers fit through the hole, and when she closes her hand she can touch her palm with the tips, just barely squeezing through. Probably makes it bigger, probably rips the thing wide open. But she doesn’t see how that matters; a hole is a hole, it’s torn, it’s broken, it’s fucked and can’t be un-holed-torn-broken-fucked, ever. Best you can do is patch it over. But you’ll always know. The goodness is gone. Her favourite jumper, too, with the photo of her year twelve on the front and all the names on the back. Her only good one, really. Used the other two as pillows so often, on so many dogpissed doorsteps, on so many manpissed stairways, on so many Godpissed nights, she doesn’t even want to think about wearing them. Though she’ll have to, soon. With yet another hole.

            Another car comes rushing, and she winds her hand out of her jumper, puts her arms over her face. But the wheel-made wave never comes. And when she uncovers her eyes, the car’s already gone.

            “Gosh, really beating the band tonight, innit?” Heels click, raincoat rustles. “Beating the shit out of them.” A purse snaps, zips rip, and copper clacks on silver. “Haven’t got anywhere with some cover?”

            “They put up spikes, miss.” Nina pulls the sleeves over her hands and tucks them into each other, and for a moment she can tell herself she’s keeping her fingers dry. “It’s horrible, miss, not gonna lie. But don’t feel bad. Not the first time, not the last, no matter what you do, miss.”

            Leeya’s mouth is slightly open, two perfect rows of bright white sunshine half-covered by unchipped lips. Frowning her s-shaped fuck this frown, the one all teachers got to see when telling her something she didn’t like, whenever they assigned homework over the holidays, and every, every time she saw or heard or thought about Mrs Faraday. The frown that went deeper and lower and bitterer than every bollocking Nina ever got from her parents. “Don’t I know you?”

            And Nina smiles away from the frown, head shaking as eyes wander, and behind the raincoat and folded umbrella she can barely glimpse a dark shape across the road. “No, sorry. Must be someone better you’re thinking of.” And Leeya gives her some change. Nickel, not gold. And she gives her a tenner, and leaves Nina alone with her cup full of rain. Nina rolls the money in her palm, closes her hands and slips them under her sleeves. She stays with her face down like that for a bit. Then she notices something. She blinks and stares and shakes herself. But when she untucks her hands to feel along her jumper there’s no two ways about it. The hole is gone. And she looks up, turns this way and that, but the street is empty, not a soul in sight, save for a long black coat billowing in the corner of her eye; but then the rain stops, the clouds pass, and the moon chases all the dark away. And not another two blinks later she’s forgotten all about it.

Illustration by Alyssia MacAlister-Banks

Illustration by Alyssia MacAlister-Banks


Previously published in the UKCCWS Illustrated Anthology Vol. 3 (2016) with the accompanying illustration.

Khoi is a linguistics graduate from Munich and currently lives in Manchester. Aside from writing poetry, he also co-hosts a social science podcast called The Defamiliars. You can reach him by emailing nguyen_khoi@outlook.com