A gloomy summer day. Rain spatters the windows. Gazing out, I decide to stay at home this afternoon. I was planning to walk in the park, look at the people. Actually, that’s not true. But I like to think that I’d go to the park, if I was able to, and if the sun was shining.
Turning away from the window, I face the bedroom mirror. ‘What shall I do?’ I ask my reflection.
‘Bring out your collection,’ is the reply.
Yes. My collection. It’s been a while.
Opening my bedside drawer, I push everything else aside. Pills, tissues, books. And there it is. The wooden jewellery box containing my souvenirs. My husband gave me this box for my birthday, the year before he died. There were necklaces and earrings and bracelets inside, once upon a time. All gone now.
Always the weight takes me by surprise. With both hands, I carry my treasure downstairs. I tip the box on to its side. A familiar smell rises. Sour, metallic. There’s a satisfying jingle as hundreds of coins tumble out, spilling over the kitchen table. One or two of them roll off the edge, but I leave them be. I’ll pick them up later. I live on my own, you see. Untidiness won’t bother anyone except me. Besides, I have time on my hands. Too much time, you could say.
As I sort through the heap, I let the memories flood in. Like the coins, some memories are shiny, as if minted yesterday. Others are dull, tarnished. Every coin represents a place I’ve been to, an atmosphere I’ve absorbed. Light as air, some of the coins are. No weight at all. Others are hefty enough to drag your purse down. One of my favourites appears, the oldest in my collection. A silver denarius from the reign of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The image doesn’t look much like him. How do I know this? I’m proud to say that I caught a glimpse of him once, when I travelled to Rome. Of course, I wasn’t allowed near him, but I found a way to sneak up. After such a long journey through the many centuries, not to mention hundreds of miles, there were some sights I just had to see. A real Emperor was one of them. A gladiator fight was another. Women were relegated to the back of the arena, so the view wasn’t much. This was for the best; I had no wish to see anyone killed. As it turned out, the lives of the combatants were spared. Supply couldn’t match demand, apparently. They lived to fight another day.
My husband wasn’t with me in Rome. He was gone by then. That’s when I started travelling. When I became a widow, I mean. Awful word, isn’t it? Widow.
I’ve lived alone ever since. It’s better that way. Don’t get me wrong; I like people. I’m not a hermit or a misanthrope. The truth is, I prefer to watch things going on, to observe life rather than participate. I never interfere. Talk to no one, keep my head down, melt into the background. I leave nothing behind, not so much as a dropped sweet wrapper. Obviously it’s tempting to do something, especially when I visit a significant event. Prevent assassinations, for example. Horrifying to see it happen, but even more so to change the direction of history and not know how it’ll affect the present, the future.
Of course, my collection doesn’t represent everywhere I’ve visited. Go back so far, and coins are scarce or don’t exist at all. I’ve been to prehistoric communities. Early humans, I mean. Obviously, I kept out of sight. But I never wanted to see the dinosaurs. It’s too frightening to know you’re the only human on the planet. As to the future, there are no coins. Not in the physical sense. I can’t keep bits of digital data in the box, can I? They don’t exist, as such.
Many places and times I’ve experienced, but I’ve hardly seen anything yet. Just a tiny fraction of the whole, like a single grain of sand on a beach. As you can imagine, it’s hard to choose where and when to go. And I have to take precautions. I didn’t realize this on my first trip.
See this sixpence here? A souvenir of Elizabethan London. Never mind how I got the coin. If you like, imagine I picked it out of the filth in the street.
How could I turn down the opportunity to experience the original Globe Theatre? Amazing, it was. Noisy, mind you, and the air was rank. What I didn’t reckon on was the plague. I’d completely forgotten the risk. There I was, in the middle of the lively, jostling crowd, breathing contagion in. You’ll be relieved to hear I didn’t catch anything. Lucky escape.
Sifting through the bits of metal – some round, some dodecagon, some almost square – I reflect upon my life. Am I lonely? Not a chance. I used to be, before I went travelling. Whenever I want, there are people. But I’m alone. I don’t fit in anywhere. That sounds odd, because wherever I go, I draw no attention to myself. It’s just that I don’t belong. You can only pretend.
The twentieth century is the most interesting to visit, and believe me, I’ve been to most of them. A two franc piece from 1944 turns up. It weighs practically nothing at all, but the times were heavy. Double headed axe and the motto ‘Travail – Famille – Patrie’ proclaim occupied France. I was in Paris the day the city was liberated. Allied troops were parading along the Champs-Élysées as I hid in the jubilant crowd. Gunfire still rattled out in pockets but that didn’t put the people off. I gazed up at the tricolore flag, which fluttered triumphantly from the Eiffel Tower.
A ten pfennig piece catches my eye. Minted in 1989. I’d heard so much about the Wall, I just had to visit Berlin. It was a cold night and I was part of the high-spirited crowd on the western side. People were chiselling away at the graffitied concrete. Easterners were pulled up and the guards did nothing. A massive party was going on, champagne was flowing. I celebrated with the rest of them. I’d stand out if I wasn’t celebrating. There was a real air of hope and friendship. I didn’t bring back a chunk of wall. A coin was enough to represent my visit.
Although the entire span of human history is open to me, I choose to live in this era, the third millennium. Why? Perhaps you don’t realize it, but this is a golden age. For some of us, at least. We’ve never had it so good. Sorry, I can’t tell you any more than that. Just try to make the most of your life. Dark days are ahead.
Slowly, I pick up stray coins from the floor. Then I sweep the lot into the jewellery box. I trace the patterns etched into the wood, thinking about previous, happier times.
Glancing at the kitchen window, I notice that the rain has stopped.
‘I really should go out,’ I murmur, thinking about the park. Children running about, dogs chasing after sticks. Elderly couples strolling hand in hand.
‘No,’ I sigh. ‘Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Next year.’
Opening my laptop, I find my favourite auction website and click on the ‘Coins and Medals’ category.
Time to add a new coin to my collection? Should I go travelling again?
I pause, and glance at the window. Clouds are parting, sunshine filtering through. Outdoors seems inviting. Not so interesting as, say, observing the Mayan people in the fourteenth century, or visiting the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. A walk in the park can’t compete with all the sights that history can offer. Still, I hesitate. Then I close the laptop and stand up.
Moving towards the front door, I slip into a pair of sandals. My breathing quickens. Am I really going to do this? It’s been so long.
Fumbling, I take the chain off the latch, turn the key. Cautiously, I open the door.
For the first time in five years, I step outside.
I wrote this story for a competition in 2017 which had ‘Coins’ as the theme. I reproduce it here without any further editing.