He had always been fascinated by money, from as early as he could remember. It seemed like a magic thing to him, the way little bits of metal and pieces of paper could buy things. Payment in kind made sense, the barter system made sense; you do my plumbing, I give you potatoes. Simple and elegant. But the whole money thing seemed like an act of faith, a party trick that everyone would see through one day. What made this bit of paper twice as valuable as another? Or this one five times more valuable than that one? They were about the same size, had pretty much the same pictures. What if everyone woke up and decided it was the other way around?
It was like gold and diamonds, they had value because people believed it. But if everyone chose to believe in something else, in the value of something else, then some other shiny thing would be the most coverted in the world. There could be no complaints, not really. But at least gold and diamonds had some use, you could do things with them, make things from them. They had a function. But little bits of paper? You couldn’t use them for anything other than money. Too fragile. Couldn’t write on them, wrap things in them, or god forbid use them in the toilet. Money was a con.
And then there was that legend on the notes: I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of. And the signature of the Chief Cashier. And the boy wondered how that worked. If you went into a bank, waved the note around, and demanded your money, what would they do? On the paper the Chief Cashier promised to pay. What could they pay you with other than more money? And who was Mr Gill? And what if he left his job? And which bank did he work in anyway?
He looked up ‘bearer’ in the dictionary and that seemed to suggest that a bearer holds something. It didn’t say anything about handing it over. So what if you went to the bank, to the Bank of England say, and demanded the promise be kept, that you wanted your five pounds? And say they gave you another note. There would be nothing to say you had to give them the first one in return. And then the second note would make the same promise, would also entitle you to another five pounds. You could stay there all day and there was nothing they could do about it except keep their promise and pay you five pounds every time you demanded it. There was probably a little room for the people who saw through the show and to the secret of it all and in that room you met the lady or the tiger, the pay-off to keep quiet or the serious men who make serious noises about consequences.
He was only 12 years old and believed the world worked in ways it resolutely did not but the fascination with money held true. That was something that did not dim as other boyhood wonders did, the zest to fly, the belief in aliens, the convoluted theories of time travel, the absolute surety that somewhere on earth dinosaurs still hid in the shadows. Other childish things were left behind, abandoned toys along the trail, but money remained.
He didn’t go in to accounting, or banking. His fascination was more with having money, or more properly, in surrendering to the system and having everything money could buy. And the system was good to him, his life became comfortable, his work well rewarded. And it was a thrill, every month, to see that cheque, another piece of paper with beautiful numbers on it.
Even so, it was an odd moment when he realised money was haunting him. And not in a general sense, but a very, very specific one. A five pound note. SA47 431506.
He didn’t know when it began, or where. He didn’t know the first time he and SA47 431506 crossed paths. It could have been coming into and out of his life for years. By the time he noticed it it was a little battered, which was what first drew his attention. The top left corner missing. Not just turned over, but gone. And there was a texture to it, one which spoke of a life of greasy pockets and dirty hands. He’d spent it as quickly as he could, get rid of it, done easily enough.
And then in the supermarket, a fistful of change and when he got home and opened it up, there was a battered five pound note, the top left corner missing. Not so unusual, a lot of notes lead hard lives. But this time he half-noticed the serial number, that run of four numbers sticking out, 1506, 15th June, his birthday. Still, later that day it was gone, handed over for a round of drinks and some roasted peanuts.
It was maybe two weeks later before it came back again, from the corner shop this time. He recognised it immediately, his birth date present and correct. And even then it didn’t seem so strange, not really. Someone got it as change in the pub, bought some things from the shop next door and here it was. There were probably lots of notes that worked a relatively small circuit in a relatively small town. He’d just noticed this one is all. And it was strange, he supposed, to think of the journey money makes, the lives it passes through, all the things it buys. If you took a note and collected together everything it had paid for, just how much would it really be worth? How many times is each note spent, the same money, buying more and more things, yet somehow keeping its value? If you collected all the people who had spent it together, how big a room would you need? But these weren’t questions that kept him up at night. His wasn’t that kind of mind. But the return of the note did catch his attention. He used it the next day, a new shirt.
But then it kept coming back. From the barber, the betting shop, the garage, twice. And how many times was normal? When did it spill over from coincidence, the natural money cycle, to something else? He began to expect it, whenever he got change. And it was rarely away from him for more than a fortnight, three weeks at the most. He took to carrying lots of coins with him, paying in exact money where he could, and that brought him a little more time. He didn’t try to rationalise it, to think to himself that was what he was doing, trying to avoid 1506. But there was no shaking it, there it was, coming out of different tills all over town, that same dog-eared note.
It was the holiday that sealed it for him. Two weeks in Spain. On the first day, in the airport, he changed some money, handed over the note amongst others to the gruff looking man on the exchange desk. And for those two weeks he was light as a feather, hadn’t realised how much that note, the expectation of seeing it, had been weighing him down. At the end of the holiday he carefully vetted the money he changed back to sterling and smiled the entire flight home, the only passenger to do so as the plane bucked in turbulence, even frequent flyers checking their belts with nervous fingers, the so often heard and mostly ignored safety instructions desperately reviewed. 1506 not in his possession.
But he wasn’t surprised, not really, when five weeks later it came back to him. He’d almost begun to believe it had gone for good, or that was what he thought. Yet as soon as he saw it, felt its oh so familiar texture, he realised he’d always known it would come back. There was some sensible explanation, on the outside edges of possibility, that it had been a charter flight and the other people on the plane lived where he lived and could have got the note from the exchange office where he had left it and brought it back. Eminently logical. But he didn’t believe it. He wasn’t sure what he believed, but it wasn’t anything sensible. There could be no sense to this.
He didn’t talk to anyone about it. What could you say? And he wondered how many people were living through similar broken miracles, what personal dreads they battled while keeping up the façade all was well and good. He tried not spending it, but didn’t like having it in the house. He thought about throwing it away, or better still, burning it, but the truth was he daren’t. He’d come close, once, had actually lit a match, nose tingling as it did every time he lit a match, and he’d brought the flame close, close to 1506. But he couldn’t do it, the match had burnt down, almost scorched his fingers. Because maybe all this was happening for a reason and, in truth, it seemed a little bit wondrous, even though he wasn’t that 12-year-old boy any more. And should you really burn wonder? Wouldn’t there be consequences? So he got the note, spent the note, and round it span again.
He gave it to beggars, began leaving it as a tip in restaurants, the barber, places you don’t even really tip and certainly not five pounds. Taxi drivers must have loved him. But his largess made no odds. It got so that 1506 wasn’t money at all. It was just something he gave people, that always came back to him. And maybe that was the point, maybe he’d been right after all. It was all just a con.
And the sad thing about wonder, about magic, about those things that can’t be explained, is that eventually the wonder fades, the magical evolves into the mundane. In 1990 when the D series of notes was replaced and the Duke of Wellington was retired in favour of George Stephenson he didn’t want to turn the note in to the bank. They’d been together, on and off, too long. But at the same time, there was nothing to do with it and 1506 found its way into the back of a drawer. He’d taken it out from time to time, just to hold it, missed it sometimes in some strange way. But the frequency he did so got less and less and now 1506 lies, as far as he is concerned forgotten, whatever its purpose ignored, destiny unfulfilled, a wonder lost in the dark.
Although what never occurred to him, what never even crossed his mind, was that the magic wasn’t when 1506 came back to him, that he was just a resting place, not the centre of the story at all but on the furthest margin. The real magic, the real miracles, happened when the note was away.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, although probably not as often as I should. I love the feeling of a story coming together, that eureka moment when you see the next step. For the last 20 years I’ve been teaching English overseas, which is something else I love. It’s nice to know after living in so many different places that, at the end of the day, people everywhere are pretty much the same – Peter Levrai