by Jez Patterson
Like most things in life, Ekram had discovered, the ways of getting it wrong dwarfed the ways of getting it right. It therefore paid to go with what you knew. Paid quite well, he hoped, as he travelled across town to check out the pawnshop Shami had told him about.
Times were hard. Shami’s mother had gone to the shop with a silver picture frame her mother had left her. Shami didn’t know how much his mother had got for it, only that the weird owner had forbidden her to take the photo out, insisting that leaving it in increased the value. The picture was of Shami’s dad, taken before the cancer stretched him about every which way and then discarded him: skinny and boneless.
Shami just had his mother now and government benefits definitely didn’t stretch every which way. Ekram had known him since primary school and they still crashed at each other’s places: Ekram grateful for a decent meal, Shami for a space on the bedsit floor to get away from his mother’s tears and complaints.
Ekram knew what that was like. Hadn’t he left home for something similar?
The bus swung in, lurched to a halt, and Ekram almost had to monkey-bar his way down the aisle to reach the door. He had the route marked on a scrap of paper but now he was here he realised the area was familiar. There’d once been a hairdresser’s where the pawnshop now stood.
The new owner had kept the old windows but had shelves pushed up against them to display all the items people had come to convert into cash.
‘I went in later and there was no one about. Really. The till was just standing there, drawer out. No CCTV cameras either. I checked.’
He and Shami had done a few burglaries together, but they left you feeling dirty after and there was always the risk an angry owner would turn up and go nuts on you. The elderly were easier targets, but had that got out, they would never have heard the end of it. Besides, you never knew who their grandsons were.
The pawnbroker hadn’t let Shami’s mother take the photo out. He profited out of people’s desperation and evidently took pleasure in it. No one was going to shed any tears or kick in the bedsit door if he turned the man’s gaff over. The bastard had what was coming to him. Shami had given him the address because Ekram lived in another area of town so there was less chance of him being recognised should there be any witnesses. One of the basic rules you followed to get it right.
Ekram looked up at the sign–‘Pignus’–with no idea if it meant something or was just the owner’s name. He focused on the ‘pig’ part and thought it was apt. When he pushed the door, the bell said ‘donk’ rather than chimed. He paused and waited to see if anything else would happen.
Nothing. As the door gently closed behind him, the noise from the traffic outside was snipped off. An old clock and a watch both ticked in the shop, alternating their beats like a man with a club foot marching on the spot.
“Hello?” Ekram said rather than called out. Nothing.
He turned a full circle, seeing odds and ends that presumably had value to collectors or dealers, because it all looked like junk to him. When Shami had mentioned it was a pawnshop, he’d heard it at first as pornshop and got excited. He blushed at the memory now, Shami’s laughter.
He walked towards the back, behind the glass-topped counter to where the old fashioned till’s drawer hung out. Shit. No notes. In fact, it was full of brightly glittering coins. He swung another look around and carefully eased one out.
‘ONE SHILLING’ was written around the edge in stylised letters, above the same three-pronged symbol that was displayed on the board outside and that Shami had said was how you knew it was a pawnshop. Ekram flipped it over. The other side was a bearded man with a crown.
He rubbed it between thumb and fingers. It had to be old, but had been polished so it gleamed. If it were solid silver, it also had to be worth something. Currency Ekram recognised would have been better, but he’d come with his pockets deliberately empty and with the intention of being filled. These would have to do.
He had just slid that first coin in his pocket when the door opened and the bell donked again.
“Good morning,” the woman said. She had silver-grey hair, combed and pinned back, and when she forced a nervous smile up onto her features the skin of her face shattered like a farm in a drought. She had a plastic shopping bag with her and plunged in a hand to pull out a purple, cushioned, jewellery case. “It was my mother’s. Her wedding ring. I hate to part with it, but what can one do, the ways things are?”
Ekram stared at her, waiting for her to realise he wasn’t the one she should be talking to. Apparently though, she was too wrapped up in the distress of parting with a family heirloom to see what should have been obvious.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” she asked.
“Er… fifty pounds?” he said, hoping that was a kind answer. The woman nibbled her lips with teeth that were like lumps of eraser stuck in old bubble gum. Sniffing something back, she nodded and held out the box towards him. Shit. Ekram turned back towards the till and saw it was closed again. He could at least give this woman the money she needed. Even if it were in these weird silver coins. He tickled some of the till’s buttons, going through the motions without an idea what he was doing. Somehow he must have chanced on the right combination because the drawer popped out and…
…and the coins were gone. Instead, there were two twenties, one ten. He pulled them out, swallowing cotton wool. The woman took them and, with trembling hands, folded them into small, neat squares and placed them in a purse full of old receipts and hair clips, and no doubt little else.
After the door donked, Ekram looked at the till and saw the drawer was back in. It must be one of those magician’s trick mechanisms. He once had a matchbox where one side the coin was shown but you twisted it round and pulled the drawer out and the coin had gone. Something like that. The fifty quid part was just a neat coincidence.
His fingers twitched and he plucked the shilling from his pocket and took a closer look.
The king’s crown was funny looking. The twin towers more like spires and the band like curly hair. The beard was short, like some pretentious artist or psychologist would wear it.
Ekram sidled round the customer who even now had a finger raised to ask him for the price of a bag of bits and pieces he’d brought in with him. Ekram grabbed the door handle, gave it a yank, but didn’t even get a rattle for his trouble. It was stuck fast.
“What have you done to the door?” he asked the man.
“I…” The man stepped back, flustered, and reached for the handle. The door opened as smoothly as if it had been greased. They both looked at each other with different reasons for their individual confusions. “I thought you were the owner,” the man said.
“No. I was just…” But explaining what he was doing here was going to cause even more complications. “I was just having a look around. Maybe to sell something.”
“Ahh. I know where you’re coming from with that.” He was as old as Ekram’s grandfather, but sallow-cheeked and with a crack running down one lens of his glasses, the handle on the other side bound with an Elastoplast. “Like selling a portion of your soul,” he said. “These were my father’s. He served in an Indian regiment during the war.” He held up the bag for inspection. Ekram looked inside, saw medals and faded ribbons. Once again, he felt sorry for the poor individuals that were forced to come here.
He fished out the coin and on a sudden whim held it out.
“Here. I don’t know where the owner is, but this might be worth something.”
The man looked at the coin but didn’t touch it.
“Never seen one like that. It’s a shilling. Solid silver is it?”
“Yep. Take it. It’s yours.” And suddenly Ekram found that he was making the offer for more reasons than just to be generous and to show a bit of charity. He really wanted, needed the man to take it.
“I don’t think I should. It’s funny, but I don’t want the responsibility. That sounds nuts. It’s just… do you know what ‘taking the king’s shilling’ used to mean?”
“That’s not a king…”
“No. He looks more like the…” The man paused, looked away from the coin, directly at Ekram. “My father told me about it. ‘Taking the king’s shilling’ was what men were persuaded to do when they joined up to fight. Sometimes though the press gangs tricked them, got them drunk and slipped it in their pockets. Then it was their word against the recruiters.”
“I didn’t take it,” Ekram said too quickly.
“Thank you, but no.” The man was jittery now. He scrunched up the top of his bag around his father’s old medals, opened the door and slipped out. Ekram attempted to dive for it but it slammed, actually slammed this time. His feet hadn’t moved and were only released when the door was shut again.
The goods lining the shelves reminded him of funeral goods placed in a tomb. What was it the man had said? Like selling bits of your soul? Ekram saw how worthless some of the items were now. Pictures drawn by a child–the type you might stick on the fridge door but no one else would ever want. Bundles of handwritten letters and postcards. More family photos like the one Shami’s mother had brought in.
The owner hadn’t been after the frame.
The pawnbroker’s three-pronged symbol on the coin and the shop front could just as easily have been turned the other way around to be the head of a trident. The king’s face too could have been someone else. He’d taken this particular king’s shilling and had been recruited to run the shop in the true owner’s absence.
Perhaps whilst they opened up new shops elsewhere. There was always plenty of desperation in the world and people would sell whatever they had to get by, even if they didn’t know exactly what it was they were parting with. The owner just needed a fresh face to conduct the dirtier side of his business. Ekram felt oddly flattered in being trusted with the position. Not to mention oddly powerful.
The bell donked and an ashen-faced woman carrying a box of unopened baby toys stepped in. Her eyes swam in pained, desperate circles. Ekram found the right kind of smile and his fingers rose to lace at his chest, thumbs tapping meditatively.
“Can we help you, madam?” he said.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.