Pennies

“Did you see anyone?”

General rule: you try not to actually see anyone in the men’s changing rooms. Not unless you enjoy the sight of sweaty dick.

“No,” Gray said.

Officer Tavish scratched the stubble on his great slab of a chin. “Never mind, CCTV probably got something.”
With the amount of times Gray had gotten changed in here, he certainly hoped not.

Officer Wendell returned from his reccie of the locker. He nodded at Gray like they were old friends. “What did they get away with?”

Now, Gray thought, was the time to embelish. ‘A money clip with a thousand quid in it. My platinum coated ring. The company card. Keys to my golden Range Rover. My gorgeous, sexually uninhibited girlfriend who has the ability to shrink herself to fit in my gym locker. I don’t know why, officer. Maybe she does arm curls or squats with my work shoes? Makes her happy anyway. And we’re very happy. Anyway, reckon you could get me all that back? All that stuff and loved ones I definitely have. What’s that? Prove it? Why, I have the permits for all of it in my gym lock–OH NO!’

But Gray had never knowingly lied before and he wasn’t about to start here. Not with his rent money on the line.

“I had three hundred and ten pounds in my wallet, ” Gray said. “And, I think, a few pennies.”

Wendell chuckled. “What were you doing with that much money in your gym locker, my mate?”

It was a good question with a complicated answer. Gray wouldn’t normally leave so much money unattended, but rent was due. And for the first time in months, Gray was able to pay it on time and in full.

But today Gray couldn’t afford to miss either the ten hour shift behind the bar or the back and chest workout and forty minutes of interval sprinting at the gym. He’d been so good at sticking to his gym schedule, even with all the extra hours he was doing in The White Horse. Not even the influx of ‘new year, new me’ hobbyists could slow down his gains.

Gray had wanted to pay his rent, in cash, on the way home so he could go straight bed and crash. So he’d gone to the cash machine between The White Horse and his gym to save himself the trip back up the road.

If he’d known his gym locker was going to be broken into and he’d have to spend an extra hour hanging around the changing rooms waiting for the police then he’d have just walked back up the damn street and added another ten minutes to his day.

Gray stammered, trying to find a way to phrase all this when Wendell’s eyes hardened into bullets. “What were you doing with that much money in your locker?”

Was this an interrogation? Did they think he was trying to blag them out of £300? What type of scumbag would try something like that?

“My rent was due,” Gray said.

Tavish sniffed and scratched at his stubble again. “Well, it looks like the rest of your stuff is here anyway.”

That was true. An extensive investigation had turned up Gray’s debit card and provisional license, both had been floating face-up in the gutter outside the gym. The wallet itself had been coated in mud and kicked under the bus stop across the street where an eloquent man in a shabby mac and a knee length beard had been trying to sell Gray’s flat keys for a packet of fags. Everything Gray had owned was present and accounted for.

Everything except his rent money.

“We’ll send C-Tech around to sweep the area in a few weeks.”

“You what?” Gray said.

Wendell snorted. “Well, there’s nothing we can do, is there? Unless you spring for the Premium Law Enforcement package for the low price of £79.99 you have to wait for C-Tech, like everyone else.”

“Unless you want to wait around for Orbit-Man and the Human Blade.” Tavish chuckled.

“I know, but-” Gray couldn’t afford any of the deluxe law enforcement packages and he definitely didn’t want any supers digging around his business over some stolen rent money. But a dozen or more sweaty men had gone past Gray’s gym locker in the past hour alone. One good samaritan had even picked up the broken door and tried to give it back to Gray.

The crime scene was beyond contaminated after just one hour. By the time C-Tech showed up all they’d be able to find was the sweat, body hair, and fingerprints of a few thousand men.

Wendell must’ve seen Gray’s distress, because he put a comiserating hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get you a reference number in a few days, that’ll let you log into the C-Tech site to see where you are in the queue. You can get the number a few days earlier and a higher queue position if you pay the £70 admin fee, then a further £10 for every position you want to skip upwards. But honestly, my mate, I’d save your money. For all we know the thief’s already blown your rent money on scag by now. Best to just forget about it.”

Wasn’t that a comforting thought as Gray walked home?

*

Belinda tapped her long fingernails on her desk. “Is this like last month when you had to use the rent money to buy medicine for your aunt?”

Last month Aunt Marie had fallen short on her insulin payments and Gray was the only one who could meet her Virgin Care costs. That meant he had to be a little later with the rent than usual. “I paid you back for that, though.”

Belinda smirked. “You did. But remember the month before when you told me you didn’t get paid?”

Again, that’d happened. In November Gray had been put on delivery duty for the week. That meant being up at dawn to meet the draymen and take all that week’s alcohol into the cellar. That had been a particularly rainy week and Gray had spent two hours each morning hauling soggy beer crates and hogshead barrels into the beer lift.

One morning the lift had gotten stuck with half the delivery still sat in the rain. Gray, soaked to the skin and pissed off with life, had given the bloody thing a boot. One of the regulars happened past at that moment and reported it to Gray’s manager. Gray’s whole pay cheque that month had gone towards the repairs to the lift. Gray was still paying off the rest in installments.

Belinda patted him in the wrist before he could explain all this again. “You’re a nice guy, Gray. And you’re always clean. The cameras don’t even detect you masturbating as much as the other clients. I’m happy to give you another extension on the rent; but you should know there’s been an offer on your space.”

“An offer?”

“Hmm, someone willing to double your original rent offer.”

Gray’s heart dropped. That was about £600 not counting utility bills. It didn’t sound like much on paper, but for a guy on minimum wage it may as well have been a few million in gold bullion.

“I can get you the money. I always do, remember?”

“I know you’re good for it, Gray. But it’s always something with you. Meanwhile, I can get another person in your space for double the profit in two weeks.”

Belinda had used similar threats before and Gray had always looked right through the bluff. But something about this time felt different.

“I’ll get the money.”

Belinda sucked on her teeth. “I’ll need to see it. Or at least part of it, by this time next week. Otherwise I’m going to have to accept the other offer.”

Gray was already doing the mental artithmetic. He could do another five hours overtime in the pub. Double time was £10 per hour. That was a good chunk of the money right there. Plus, if he put in all the money from his other forty hours of regular time he was almost there. If he didn’t go to the gym that week there was another few quid he could save in gym fees. If he was short then he could always pawn his TV again.

He didn’t know what he was going to do for food. Maybe get a pay day loan for twenty quid or so?

Or, failing all this, he could always just ask Darry for an advance.

*

“No,” Darry said.

Overtime, lack of exercise, and credit card debt it was then.

*
Gray put two vodka lemonades on the bar. “Anything else, ladies?”

The woman in the green coat stared goggle-eyed at her companion: “Sharon, d’you want anything else?”

Sharon blinked back: “What’s that, Doreen?”

“He wants to know if you want anything else?”

Sharon narrowed her eyes at Gray. “Does he now?”

The bar was filling up behind them.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Want anything else?”

An older, red-faced man in a suit bellied his way to the front of the queue and waved a £50 in Gray’s face. “Oi, mate. You serving or what?”

“One moment, sir–”

“Sir! Sir is it now?” The red-faced man thumped on the bar with his palms to a chorus of self-assured chortles behind him.

“And a pint of Guinness,” said Doreen

The red faced man tapped Doreen on the shoulder. “‘scuse me, love. I was here first.”

Doreen blinked at him. “Eh?”

“He said he was here first.”

“Who was here first?”

“Oooh, are we doing that old comedy routine?”

“Who?”

Gray poured the Guinness. There wasn’t much else he could do. “Is that everything, ladies?”

“‘Ere, I said a pint of Guinness as well,” said Sharon.

“I know, it’s just settling,” Gray said.

“When you’re ready, mate.” The red-faced man waved his money in front of Gray’s nose again. What he wouldn’t have given just to snatch it right out of the man’s pudgy fist and leave him thirsty.

“Who’s ready?” asked Doreen

“That’s easy. John Ready,” Sharon smirked. “He was governor of the Isle of Mann.”

“What?” The woman in the green coat asked.

“He invented the steam engine. James Watt, innit.”

Doreen tugged on her friend’s coat. “Is this a pub quiz, Sharon?”

“Yes it is, Doreen. And we’re winning.”

By this time the Guinness was ready. Gray put it in front of the two ladies and prayed to god they didn’t want anything else. The two of them stared at it like it’d just been humping the leg of their dog.

“And what’s that then?” Doreen asked.

“Eh?”

“Guinness?” Gray said. “You ordered it before.”

Doreen huffed. “No I didn’t.”

“Which?” Sharon asked.

“Ere, who’re you calling a witch?” Doreen said.

Gray had been five years in this job and he was still convinced some of the patrons were just winding him up. There was no way these sorts of interactions were real.

He just hid the Guiness behind the bar and acted like he’d never even poured it. “That’ll be £6.99.”

Doreen handed over a ten, as she did she gave him a pat on the hand. “Bless, you’re not very good at this, are you love?”

Gray forced his teeth to smile and popped the till. Change of £10, Gray scooped up the three pound coins and the one–

Oh no–

Oh god no–

Gray handed the three pound coins over with a shaking hand. “Sorry girls, we don’t have any pennies.”

“How?” Doreen asked.

Sharon slapped her palm on the bar, the rings on her fingers jangling. “Jane How! She played Dirty Den’s mistress in Eastenders!”

Doreen nodded like that was the smartest thing she’d heard all night. “Yes she did, Sharon and you kinow what else…”

They looped each other’s arms and made their way back to the table, muttering to eachother all the while.

The red faced man slapped Gray across the cheeks with his £50. “I say; two pints of lager, four sambucca, one double whiskey and coke, and a pint of Guinness. There’s a good lad.”

He was rewarded with a whole bar’s worth of guffaws. Even the other bar tenders were laughing. While Doreen and Sharon had been playing the most contrived game of who’s on first ever, the bar had filled up with the Sunday night Rugby crowd who were all having the time of their lives.

Gray blinked away the tears and got the drinks. That was, more or less what he had on his CV these days; ‘fight tears, serve drinks.’

But at least Gray found a use for that extra Guinness he hadn’t used earlier. He wouldn’t be getting the spillage fee taken out of his pay cheque this time.

“Ah, good man. You’re slow, but by god you get results.” The red faced man pulled out a wallet so stuffed with notes it looked like a housebrick. “What’s the damage?”

“£24,” Gray said.

The red-faced man tossed the fifty in Gray’s face and handed drinks off to some of the people behind him. All of them looked as red-faced and be-suited as he was.

Gray held the fifty in one hand and stared at the open till. The same till that didn’t have any pennies. He ran his hands over the pound coins and brushed against the compartment stuffed with five pound notes.

“I’m so sorry, mate,” Gray said. “There’s no fivers or pound coins in this till.”

The man had one hand out while his big, red face was pointed behind him, chatting to one of the other gammon-faced chaps in his group.

Gray put a tenner in the man’s hand and it snapped shut like a bear trap. The red-faced man didn’t argue or even notice how badly he’d been shortchanged.

Meanwhile, Gray was up £16.01 on the night on top of his usual £5 per hour.

An idea took shape in his mind.

Doreen came storming over to the bar and shovelled an 18-stone rugby bloke out of the queue with one hand. She shoved a bony finger in Gray’s face.

“‘ere, where’s me Guinness then?”

*

It became known as the ‘penny scam’ and it was remarkably simple.

At least once an hour, Gray would have to deal with a difficult, rude, or just plain nasty customer. Impatient people, regulars who felt entitled to free stuff, fresh-faced eighteen year olds who challenged Gray to a fight after he ID’d them.

Gray didn’t know why, but the ruder a person was, the more likely they were to be surrounded by thirsty friends. Even the biggest skinflint is going to expect to pay a little more when they buy a big round. They often didn’t notice an extra quid or two tacked on to the bill.

Most of the time the customers still marvelled at how cheap the round was.

A quid here, a quid there, a few big rounds where Gray could tack a fiver or even a tenner onto the bill and for everyone else?

Sorry sir/madame, we don’t have any pennies.

And Gray would make a penny or five pence or even ten out of the deal. Because who would notice a few pennies?

By the end of the week, enough pennies rolled in for Gray to meet his rent in full.

You’d be amazed how few people paid attention to their change.

Within a month, Gray had matched the offer on his flat.

Six months and Gray could afford a car, with all the payments that came with it.

He was putting in applications for better jobs outside the city. The kind you needed a car to get to. One time he even got an interview.

A year in and Gray bought himself a temporary continental visa and booked himself a holiday outside of the UK. It was expensive, but Gray could afford it.

*

They met at a cafe on the banks of the River Tiber. Gray was sat in the sunshine with half a bottle of good red wine enjoying the sort of sunny spring weather you just can’t get in England without a gallon of rain to go with it.

While he enjoyed the sunshine and the wine, he watched the cameriera behind the bar serving customers. At first he was just marvelling at how good it felt to be on this side of the bar for once, and yes, he had been counting his change carefully. Then he was enjoying listening to all the Italian around him, both of Gray’s parents had been from Italy and listening to their language again reminded him of home.

It seemed unpatriotic to be thinking of Italy as home, especially since he spoke the language well and knew what the men and women were saying about him. But nevertheless, it was nice to hear his parent’s language again, even if it was just being used to call him a fica inglese or a pezzo di merda Brexit stronzo.

At least they’d stopped spitting at him once they found out where he was from, anyway.

But after several glasses of wine, Gray found himself more entranced by the cameriera herself. Her smile was so bright and enchanting when she served the customers. She had big brown eyes the colour of melted chocolate and lips like two plump cherries.

Soon Gray couldn’t take his eyes off her, she reckoned she must’ve spotted him staring a few times. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable so he tried to focus his attention on the sunlight dipping down below St Peter’s Cathedral. As enchanting as the sight was, it didn’t take long for Gray’s eyes to drift back over to the woman behind the bar.

He considered finishing his half bottle and going for a walk. There was still so much of Rome he hadn’t seen and as a barman himself, the last thing he wanted to do was make anyone else uncomfortable.

But he also wanted to speak to her. He had no idea what he was going to say, of course. Gray spoke Italian, but he had always gotten tongue-tied when he spoke to women. However, there was a great freedom in knowing that if she laughed in his face then he could just walk away and never see her again. Plus the wine in his belly was filling his head with thoughts they never would’ve had on their own.

In true British fashion he carried his glasses back to the bar when he went up. His legs were shaking, but he hid them under the bar so she couldn’t see.

“Excuse me,” he said in his faltering, unpractised Italian. “Can I…get another glass of wine?”

He had originally meant for that to be something else, ‘can I get your name?’ or ‘can I get your number?’ But he’d bottled it at the last minute.

Also, he’d said it in English.

The beautiful woman smiled and poured him a glass. He wanted to say something. He’d given up saying anything charming, just saying anything would’ve been an improvement. But all he could do was stand there politely while she told him the price.

He paid and thanked her. No other words came to mind. His stomach had dropped right out of his body and vanished entirely.

He took his glass and counted his change…

“Excuse me,” he said to her, so emboldened and giddy by the coins in his hand that he’d switched back to Italian. “I seem to be fifty cents short.”

“Scusi signore.” She opened up her till and took out the fifty cents.

“Scambia tutti i ragazzi?” He said. “O solo quelli britannici?”

Their eyes met. “I try it on as many people as I can get away with,” she said in English. “Most people don’t notice their change.”

“I’m not most people.” Gray felt like an idiot the second those words left his mouth, but seeing her smile let him know that he’d said the right thing.

*

Her name was Gabriella Mancini and she was a literature student, just like Gray had been before the fees had forced him out. University was free in Italy these days, so Gabriella just had to pay her rent–a rent much cheaper than Gray’s–with the wages she made from the cafe.

She’d started her version of the penny scam for of the same reasons as Gray. Even without paying university fees, Gabriella still had bills to pay just like everyone else.

Plus she was sick of the men who kept ogling her and ripping them off felt like taking the power back.

At first, they just bonded over their mutual joy of getting a small victory in a world that just wanted to club you down.

Gray fell for her in a way he’d never fallen for any woman before. He wanted to hold onto every precious moment they spent together. But all too quickly Gray’s holiday time ran out and he had to leave her.

It was the best and only holiday of Gray’s life.

*

He came back to the UK with a heavy heart. They’d promised to e-mail one another, and Gray was surprised to find an e-mail waiting for him when he got home. She already missed him, she said.

But after an afternoon spent searching, Gray discovered Italy didn’t have a great deal of job prospects. Fewer fees and scams, perhaps, but young people were still struggling to get on the first rung of the employment ladder. Speaking fluent Italian helped, but why would any employers want to risk bringing an unproven Brit into the country when there were plenty of young Italians willing to work just around the corner? Especially not these days when hostility towards Britain was rife across the continent.

So Gray needed money to set himself up with a new place to live, money for the UK exit fee, money for the Italian entrance fee, enough spending money to keep himself alive for as long as it took to find work, and enough money to keep Gabriella in expensive gifts so she didn’t leave him.

That was going to take a lot of pennies.

*

Gray got his penny scam into a pound industry. Soon every customer had a 10% ‘Gabby Tax’ on their order whether they were rude to Gray or not.

It helped that the White Horse had never been an expensive pub. The Gabby Tax wasn’t even as much of a mark-up as the pubs on the same street. The Laughing Friends charged £5 a pint for god’s sake. Now that was a scam! Even with the Gabby Tax, the customers at the White Horse were getting a deal.

No matter how many times Gray told himself that though, it didn’t feel any less rottten. It was only for a few months, he told himself. Not long. Just a few more months and he’d be with Gabby again.

*

A few people put offers on Gray’s flat. Gray matched them all, but Belinda put his rent up each time. Soon Gray was paying two thousand pounds a month on the same pokey flat he’d lived in for six years.

The posts moved every time Gray got close to the goal. A surplus of British refugees forced the government to raise the cost of the exit fee. Prime Minister Winston Farage III blamed the Europeans, and in response the Italian government cancelled their immigration programme completely. Gray had to go through the black market for his visa instead, which was far more expensive.

A few months turned to three years. Three years alone on a rainy island pining for a woman who was a whole continent away.

Gabby e-mailled him every day. He wished they could speak on Skype or talk on the phone, but video and audio communication with Europe was against the law. All they had was the e-mails.

But they kept Gray going.

Gabby hadn’t abandoned him and he wasn’t going to abandon her, even if he had to steal the pennies from every pocket in England.

*

“That’ll be £47.50, mate,” said Gray.

The tall, well-dressed man across the bar handed over his fifty. And like usual, Gray opened the till and wondered which scam he wanted to pull. It was a big round, so Gray had already added a tenner onto the bill for himself. But he also had a chance to scrape a few more pennies out of the deal.

A few more pennies to get him to Gabby.

“Sorry, mate. We don’t have any ten or five pences, can I give the rest to you in pennies?”

The tall man leaned over the bar and peered into the till. “The five and ten pence pieces are the silver coloured ones, lad.”

Nobody had ever been tall enough to try that before.

“So they are,” Gray tried to laugh it off. “Sorry, I don’t have my head on right today.”

“Of course you don’t,” the tall man held his hand out. “Expensive, this pub, isn’t it?”

Gray handed over the change. The correct change, for once. “I’m sorry?”

“Yes. I can get the same for ten pound less in The Laughing Friends up the road.” The tall men spread his lips to expose a row of nicotine stained teeth. “Never mind though, eh? It’s only money.”

Gray said nothing. He just let the man go back to his table.

Four years of running the penny scam, and this was the first time he’d ever felt like someone was onto him.

*

There was a post card from Gabby waiting for him when he got home. It was unusual to get something physical from her after three years of electronic mail. He hugged it to his chest and collapsed on his bed to read it.

It was in perfect English.

“Dearest Graham,

I’ve loved you for years. No man has made me as happy as you have. But it’s been too long.

Wishes aren’t enough, my love. You can’t get to me and I can’t get to you.

I’m so sorry, but I’ve met someone. I’ll always love you, but it’s clear to me that I’m never going to be with you.

I hope you find some happiness over there. You deserve it,

Yours Forever

Gabriella.”

Gray put the postcard on his pillow, got up and walked outside. He didn’t know where he was going, but he couldn’t stay in the same building as that post card and he also couldn’t throw it away. So he had to walk.

Three years of overtime. Three years of sacrifice. Three years of never having pennies, of adding a few extra quid tax on every round, of that one office party who’d left their card behind the bar and didn’t argue the six thousand pound bill. Four months and Gray had everything he needed to get out of the country down to the penny.

And now there was nothing to spend it on.

He was stood on his porch, fighting to breathe when he met Orbit-Man.

Or more specifically, he saw a flash of light in the sky and then met Orbit-Man’s fist as the invincible super-being from beyond the stars crashed down on him like a comet. Gray never even heard the landing.

*

Gray came to in a prison cell. Outside the bars a dozen armoured police officers stood guard with automatic weapons. The Human Blade sat amongst them, polishing one of her many knives as she watched a TV clipped to the ceiling. Gray recognised Orbit-Man, the hulking, cleft-jawed super being that’d knocked him out. From the looks of things he was giving some sort of press conference.

“Nevertheless,” Orbit-Man boomed, “we apprehended the villain. The spawn of foreigners, no less. Before he could escape beyond her majesty’s influence.”

The TV audience gasped, booed, and a few curse words were bleeped out for the benefit of the pre-watershed viewers.

“None of this would be possible without the aid of patriots like you and the brave men and women of Police Force Incorporated. I have with me, Chief-Captain Norman Wendell, who is here to give sentence. God save the queen.”

Orbit Man vanished in a burst of crimson starfire and another man took the podium. Gray recognised him, the short stature, the thick beard. He even had the same large companion with the slab jaw scratching at his stubble behind him.

“We’ve finally caught the penny-bandit.” The short cop winked to the camera, like he was winking right at Gray. “And the text result is in. The British people, in your mercy, have sentenced Graham ‘Gray’ Chance AKA The Penny Bandit to…”

Drums beat out from somewhere in the crowd.

“Eight years in the Big Brother Pennitentary. You can catch up with the Penny Bandit on All 4, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days per year for the next eight years.”

Gray didn’t resist as the cops opened up his cell and hustled him away at gunpoint. The Human Blade spat at him as he was whisked past.

The TV droned away as Gray was shoved down the corridor.

“And if you’re in need of some brave warriors to fight crime for you, just call Police Force Incorporated. Calls are charged at £2 for the first ten minutes and £5 for each additional minute. Or you can get full PFI coverage for just £79.99 a month, or for a limited time only, our deluxe Penny Bandit deal — only five million pennies for two years of unlimited police coverage…”

— By Matt Holland 30/03/2018

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