When I was a child, my mother gave me a bun penny and told me that whenever I found myself in trouble I should ask Queen Victoria what to do and she would tell me. My mother was strange like that, full of advice which made no sense. Her love was steady but erratic. I knew she loved me just like I knew that there is a rainbow somewhere in the sky everyday of the year, you just couldn’t see it. My home was dark corridors and howling winds on nights when she left me alone to fend for myself. That’s a bit harsh on a three year old.
I told my husband that once. He’s big, Scottish, taciturn, rarely smiles, rarely talks. Sometimes I think I mistook a big empty wardrobe painted with thistles for a man. But when I said about the bun penny he’d said, ‘Ay, she were a daft bint and no mistake. I hope you dinnae treat our kids like that’. And I realised that I didn’t want children who were like him. I did not want a house full of huge empty wardrobes that only came to life to say hurtful things.
Without asking the bun penny or my husband for permission, I set off into the world. I wasn’t looking for another man, or my mother who was long gone. I did not know what I was looking for, but mountains and the sea called to me and I watched waves crash on splendid beaches. The bun penny was safe in my pocket and on nights where the rain pelted down before I had found shelter, or when supplies ran out before I reached safety, I would put my hand in my pocket and feel the surety of love, even if it was the wonky love of my mother.
I could have lived like this forever. My skin browned, my limbs thinned and the weight of the haversack on my back came to feel like nothing. I could walk miles and miles without flinching and go in whatever direction I wanted. I would never be trapped in a dark house with no means of escape again. I would not produce stiff little wooden children who produced words without heart in them. I was being me.
One lodging house was in a very remote location. However, the sheets were clean and smelled fresh, and the food was plentiful although the vegetables were cut with the same mannish heaviness that the patron himself exuded. There were no roads nearby. He walked miles to pick up supplies and he had vast freezers and cupboards full of tinned foods and huge hams. I decided to stay for a week when I saw the view from my room. There were mountains and streams and forests and an enormity of sky. The beauty of that view both emboldened me and miniaturised me in that first look.
The next morning I woke to find the patron sleeping next to me. Now, I wonder why I didn’t run screaming for help. But I didn’t. I got up and opened the curtains and then climbed back into bed and just sat there, admiring the mountains, next to this man who I knew by instinct meant me no harm. I didn’t know, nor did I care, why he had come to join me in my bed.
Finally I got up to open the window so the smell of pine could fill the room and he stirred. He sat up and looked confused and then he started talking ten to the dozen about how sorry he was, how he was prone to sleepwalking and he meant no harm and how he hoped I would stay for a few more days. I wouldn’t have to pay he said, I could stay for weeks. This was all said in a panic because I think he thought I might accuse him of attacking me and he’d end up in jail.
I put my hand on his arm to comfort him but the touching of his skin made me jump. That touch told me heaps about him. ‘It’s alright, it was my fault, I should have locked the door,’ I said.
He left the room doing apologetic little bows in my direction. That night I locked my door and left the window open to let in the cold and the audacious smell of pine.
A week later I was packing my bag. He’d done my washing for me. He was still refusing payment and we were having an ‘I will, you won’t’ conversation in the hall when the telephone rang. It was a heavy dark brown bakelite phone with a little cup on the speaking end to catch your words. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘oh dear, thank you for letting me know.’ Then he turned to me and said that I couldn’t leave.
I gripped the bun penny tightly in my pocket.
‘What do you mean, I can’t leave? Of course I can leave.’
‘No, you can’t because nobody is allowed to go anywhere.’
I asked who was doing the allowing and more importantly, who was going to stop me.
‘There is a pandemic.’
‘There is a virus out there that is killing people. Everyone has to stay in their home and only go out for essential supplies and exercise.’
Now this place was nice and I liked the host despite his nocturnal wanderings. But it did not have a television or a radio and no newspapers were ever bought. It existed in a timeless bubble that ignored all the nonsense of the outside world.
‘That was my mother on the phone.’ he explained, ‘she knows my situation.’
‘May I use the phone?’ I asked.
He showed me how to use the dial, told me the code for England and I called my husband.
He asked me who I was.
‘Your wife,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ he said. You see what I mean about an empty cupboard. ‘I hope you’re not coming home, only I have a friend staying.’ He said friend in a loaded way and I was delighted to realise that I didn’t care.
‘Is there a pandemic?’ I asked.
I repeated the question.
‘Where are you?’
I declined to say though later I wished I’d said that I was just up the road with a dry hacking cough and a raging temperature.
‘Is there a pandemic?’ I repeated and he said yes and that meant that in no circumstances was I allowed to return home. I put the receiver down before he finished speaking.
I asked my host what his name was.
‘Gordon,’ he replied.
Now, Gordon and I were going to be holed up in his house for an indefinite future. This turned out to be no hardship. We played draughts and chess and he came with me on walks and explained about the wild herbs that you could harvest. He would pick them and hold them to my nose so I could catch their scent and know them. Sometimes I would stand close to him to catch his scent so that I would know him.
Gordon knew the names of the trees and the flowers and all the mountain passes that we walked through on our rambles. He knew where cold, fresh streams fell through the rocks so we could drink our fill. Gordon would pour sun screen into my hand and then look intently into my face to check that I had rubbed it in properly. He carefully maintained a space between us. I never told him of the time I had touched his arm and known all about him.
I felt the bun penny in my pocket and it felt hot and flustered. I took it out to look at Queen Victoria, the young Victoria before she bore nine children and lost her beloved husband, a hopeful Victoria with all her future in front of her.
I traced my way to his room and found a huge sofa strategically placed so that it was impossible for him to get to my room.
I found him cooking breakfast in the kitchen.
‘Full English,’ he said proudly as he stewed tinned mushrooms in a saucepan and fried bacon that was nothing like English bacon.
I enjoyed that meal because it was the first meal of the rest of my life. The bun penny had spoken to me in a way that I had not expected. Whatever the future might hold we must enjoy the here and now. I was the young Queen Victoria looking out from a penny into a hopeful future.
I took his hand and pulled him so he was looking at me and he would see our future in my eyes. Years later we would talk about the pandemic and how it had changed the world with a tsunami of loss and sadness. And how it had brought the world to us.
Inspiration: I wanted to write about an old penny I’d seen so I picked up a pen and wrote whatever came into my head.
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