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“The Coin” – A short story by Rob Shackleford

The Coin
By Rob Shackleford

 

When I was a kid, things weren’t as structured at school as they are now. Then, children would either walk or ride a bicycle to school.  Rather than being met by crowds of parents carefully scrutinizing the surroundings for pedophiles, the school bell would ring at the end of the day and there would instead, be crowds of children milling as they walked home, barefoot, from their day of not only education, but also fun, laughter, and life.

My brand new school was at the end of our street. Built to cater to the needs of a rapidly growing working-class suburb at the edge of the city of Brisbane in the mid-1960’s, the school was initially two or three stark, steel and timber frames built on stilts. Underneath was a concrete play area and places to sit while eating ‘little lunch’ or ‘big lunch’, while above were the classes, framed with walls of louvres to encourage air circulation. The teachers, mostly men dressed in white shirt and tie, long socks and seersucker shorts, struggled to keep the attention of children who visibly wilted in the stifling heat.

The thing I remember most was the dust. In my second year of school I was one of the school’s first students. There were no fences, so many of the children would take off into the surrounding bush at their big-lunch to play. It is amazing how any of us survived.

What was most distinctive was the ‘Oval’, the flattering description for the sports arena upon which football and cricket were played. Like the rest of the school grounds, the oval completely lacked any vegetation. Bulldozers had torn the school from the raw Australian bush, leaving the skeletal remnants of trees in mounds about the borders of the grounds, while the top soil, in the baking hot sun, became the finest, powdery grey dust.

The dust was fantastic!

We would walk barefoot through the dust and each footfall would puff up a little grey cloud. We were always barefoot, not because of poverty, though most families struggled financially, but just because everyone, even the girls, went barefoot. Shoes were a luxury worn when we went to church and I remember the joys of carefully polishing the family’s shoes to a mirror shine each Sunday morning. But at school, the uniform black church shoes were always removed, even in winter. It was what we did. We would run and play shoe-less, big toes scabbed as the end was eventually stubbed off, so the bloody skin hung on a skin hinge. I still have old black and white school photographs of children with tufted hair and bare feet sitting, smiling proudly.

What was the best was that the talcum powder fine dust would catch even the slightest zephyr. Often a whirlwind or willy-willy would rise when the bare ground was heated by the baking sun. The swirling column would hungrily suck the dust to form a dense, grey tower and into this the boys would run, screaming in excitement as the dust caked our hair and faces and completely impregnated our clothes. At other times a stiff breeze would carry a rapidly approaching wall of grey.  The fun was to get in front of it, backs to the wind as the dust hit with a tickling sand-blast on bare legs and arms.

My mother always complained at how filthy I was at the end of a school day as eyes peered raccoon-like from my dust-caked skin. My shirt would smell of dust and sweat and, instead of being good for the required second day’s wear, would have to be washed in the old wash-tub and ringer in our outdoor laundry.

Good times!

The dust was also the place where we played marbles. Marbles was predominantly the game for boys and we would clutch our precious multi-coloured glass spheres in the pockets of our dull grey uniform shorts. On more than one occasion I would ‘scab’ a marble off someone and end up with half a dozen to take home as it was a ruthless, winner-take-all affair. Games of runners, circles, and holesey were played. Scooping marble holes in the playground only added to the dust and aggravated the teachers whom I am sure had visions of a distant, more civilized, vegetated school. Sometimes marbles were banned because of the lunar landscape of the marble playing area. The bans never lasted.

One day, in the bare space that was the parade ground, I found a coin. The parade ground was between one of the school buildings and the marble ground and in the wisdom of the education department had been covered by bauxite. The small, rusty red spheres of aluminium ore packed the ground in a vain effort to alleviate the suffocating dust. From what I could tell, no-one thought to control the dust with vegetation. The small bauxite stones were too small to throw at each other, but were the best ammunition for a sling-shot, or shanghais as we called them, as the small stones would fly true because of their spherical perfection. Many a ceramic power-line insulator fell victim to those babies, shattering when struck with a truly well-aimed pebble.

Anyway, back to the coin.

I remember this well as it was only a couple of years after the Australian government had sacrificed one of the trappings of the British monarchy and initiated our own decimal currency. Giving away the Empire’s Pounds, Shillings and Pence in 1966, one of my first memories of school was that later in the year, Australia’s new coins would be introduced. We marveled over a tiny, shiny copper one cent coin and the bigger two cent coin. I could be forgiven for thinking, based on the doubling of coin size per cent, how massive ten or twenty cent coins were going to be.

It was big-lunch and baking hot. I had consumed my lunch, which was dreadfully wilted for it had been stored in a semi-transparent Tupperware lunch box which, because our schoolbags were often in the sun, gently steamed my blue-cheese and lettuce sandwich into an almost inedible soggy mess. To make matters worse, my mother always placed a few sweet biscuits in the same lunch box so they always took on the blue cheese taste. It could have been worse, as sometimes she inexplicably made liverwurst and onion sandwiches for us for lunch which, in the summer heat, left fumes that could kill cockroaches.

So it could be understood that I was rather … peckish.

In the dust of the parade-ground at Watson Road State School I found a two cent piece. The year was 1968 and I was in Grade 3 and about eight years old. I was not used to pocket money and not really used to possessing coins at all. So on finding the precious copper coin, I enjoyed studying the details, the stylized head of Queen Elizabeth and on the other side the crisp, artistic rendition of a ‘Frilly’ Lizard. I had never actually seen a Frill-Necked Lizard as the reptiles that inhabited our neighbourhood were actually bearded dragons; grey, spiky and rough, like the iron-bark trees that naturally forested the area. The bearded dragons would sit, not moving, on the trees and were almost invisible. Once spotted they were great fun to catch and, as they swelled and opened their yellow mouths in threat, used to chase girls.

On examining the coin I was struck by what I thought was strange, that the date on the coin was all wrong. Here it was, 1968, and the date on the coin was 1972.

That could not be right!

I called over my friend, Tony Purser. He was quiet and placid, a good friend and when called over he looked at the coin, wrinkled his nose, and shrugged his shoulders. Not the response I thought I would get so I called to another friend, Greg Blank. He was more vocal. “Ohhh bullshit Shack, how can a coin say 1972?”

That response was more like expected but did not satisfy me for long as, once proved and discussed for a minute or two, he also simply shrugged his shoulders and went back to his game of marbles.

What to do with such a coin? How could a coin from four years in the future be in the year 1968?

I held on to the amazing coin for a few minutes, pondering the possibilities, on how such a strange thing could be. I have often thought about the coin since, for in my hand I held a coin from the future. Did someone from the future have the coin drop inadvertently from their pocket in a moment of carelessness or, just as improbable, were some coins prepared in advance by the government and accidentally released by the banks and given as a part of an unsuspecting worker’s pay-packet?

It was a conundrum.

Perhaps with the reasoning of an adult I would have approached a teacher on playground duty, or even taken it home to my parents so the newspaper could have been informed. It would have served me no useful purpose to keep the coin in storage as, in four years, the coin would be just another two cent piece. After all, I was only eight, with a limited capacity of fascination for such things, and a ball-bearing used as a marble was clearly much more interesting.

I recall sitting and thinking as I looked at the amazing coin. Yes, the date was absolutely certain. The 1972 was crisp and clear, the carved artwork easily defined.

It was only two cents. Not even worth much, even to me. It wasn’t long before I knew exactly what to do.

Forget about the mystery of how a coin from the future could have been in 1968, even if it was from 1972. The coin was soon traded at the tuck-shop, our school cafeteria, for a couple of Jatz crackers spread with Vegemite. They were the only worthwhile thing that two cents would buy and while I decided, in the stifling heat, that I was not particularly hungry, as a normally penniless eight-year-old I simply had to spend every cent that fell into my eager hands.

Snack consumed, the mysterious coin was forgotten and I went back to playing marbles in the grey dust.

 

Rob Shackleford - The Coin short story

 


Author Comment

The Coin is a true story. I still can’t figure how I found a coin from the future, but it makes for a great tale. It is interesting to recount what school was like then, in the 1960’s, with the dust and lax security. How much has changed and while services have somewhat improved, has life? Nostalgia always makes the old days tinged with gold.

But writing this little story was fun, recounting just one of my many memories from those old school years in Acacia Ridge. Interestingly, Watson Road State School no longer exists.


Rob Shackleford - Author of Traveller Inceptio, Traveller Probo and Traveller Manifesto
Rob Shackleford – Author

Rob Shackleford lives with partner, Debra-Jane, at Burleigh Heads, on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Rob is author of Traveller Inceptio, published by Austin Macauley Publishers.

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