The Mason’s Coin
Charl found the silver box under a window seat. The object was small and delicate; no more than three inches square and two deep, with a faded blue ribbon around it, tied in an elaborate bow. It had a floral design etched into its hinged top and the fine, curling tracery was tarnished black. The young tradesman looked at the box with incomprehension, his experience of such things being limited and his reactions and impressions slow to form. After a moment he closed his hand around the box and looked instead at his work.
The window seat had been set into a recess taking up half the depth of the cottage’s three-foot thick front wall. This wall, as old as the 250 year-old building itself, was faced with time- and weather-pitted local stone. The extensive renovation of the cottage was all but complete, and the replacement of the window seat timber was part of what Charl had learned to call the “titivation” stage. The owners of the cottage had wanted the seat restored to its original bare wood and only after Charl laboriously burned off and sanded down through seven layers of paint did his employers realize that a line between the picturesquely rustic and the downright tatty had been crossed. It was while replacing the old board with a cut-to-measure piece of new hardwood that Charl had found an odd little square of rough laths set into the rubble-filled cavity between the inner and outer walls and, nestled into this, the box.
Charl reopened his fist and looked again at the casket-like silver box. His hands were large, muscular and calloused but they were accustomed to close, intricate work. With deft, neat function he untied the ribbon, lifted the tiny catch and pushed back the lid of the box. It had seemed at first touch that the box was not empty and Charl had felt in a vague way that there was probably a coin of some kind inside. Neither deduction nor imagination prepared him for the second item in the box. There was a coin: a gold sovereign, in what a collector would have considered Extremely Fine condition. The obverse side of the coin showed the head of a plump, girlishly pretty, Queen Victoria. The coin was dated 1839 and the only blemishes on it were several tiny scratches which had been made by the other object in the box. This – laid on a bed of dark blue plush with the coin held in it – was a sculpture in ivory of a human hand. The small carving – scarcely larger than Charl’s own thumb – was at once photographically life-like and entirely ghostly. It was a right hand and obviously meant to be that of an infant. At the sight of the ivory hand, severed clean at the wrist, Charl shut the lid of the box almost involuntarily. He half-opened it and then, without looking inside again, shut it, secured the latch and retied the ribbon. He took his handkerchief from a pocket of the trousers under his over-alls, wrapped the silver box in it and buttoned both into the pocket of his shirt.
“Where’d’ee find they to, Charl?” asked one of the men at the bar.
It was six o’clock and there were, as well as Charl, half a dozen of his fellow townsmen taking after-work pints in the small, plain public house.
“’Ur was in the wall cavity of that house out Hinton we be workin’ to. Under one o’ they old window seats.”
The silver box sat, ribbon untied and lid open, on the bar; fragile against a background of half-drunk pints, cluttered ashtrays and bar towels. The men all looked at the box and at the coin and the strange tiny hand. No one’s curiosity appeared strong enough to make him want to touch the objects.
“They’ll be worth a shillin’ or two,” said one of the men finally. “What’ee reckon, Geoff?”
The publican was a transplanted Londoner with a sharp, personable face and the stature and aspect of a retired jockey. He looked at the box and its contents with disinterested shrewdness.
“Oh, they’d have to be,” he said. “The box anyway. And that coin must be… Well, not many of them knocking about I don’t suppose. But I couldn’t put a price on them just off the top of my head. Of course, you could take them down to Harvey’s and ask for a valuation.”
“They’d want money for that, wouldn’t ‘’em?”
“Oh yes, Charl. You can count on that. Old Peter Harvey never got to be the biggest auctioneer in West Country givin’ away free valuations, did ‘ur?
“Well, I don’t know then….” Said Charl.
“What about the owners of the house, Charl?” Did’ee tell ‘em you found ‘un?”
Charl looked uncertainly at his questioner, the eldest of those present and a man he had known for as long as he had known anyone outside his own family.
“I couldn’t, Sam. The people’re away in France. We be in the house on our own the past two weeks.”
“What would ‘ur want to tell owners for?” said a young man who Charl had been at school with. “Ol’ Charl ain’t daft. He found ‘un, didn’t ‘ee? What’s wrong with keepin’ ‘un?”
“Well,” said Geoff,” “strictly speaking…”
Charl reached out, carefully took up the ivory carving between his right thumb and forefinger and placed it in his left hand. The minutely-sculpted extremity looked starkly smooth and luminous against the criss-crossed, line-shadowed terrain of his own hard-used palm.
“Thing’s probably been there a hundred… What’s the date on that coin? 1839? A hundred and fifty years and more. You keep a-hold on ‘un, Charl, and get what you can.”
“Ah, well,” said Geoff, “ignorance is bliss, I suppose. What the eye doesn’t see the heart won’t grieve for.”
Sam looked for a moment at Charl, who did not take his eyes from the object in his hand.
“If you do go to Harvey’s, Charl,” he said, “where you going to tell ‘em you got ‘un to?”
“Yes,” said Geoff judiciously. “Whoever buys it’ll want to know where it came from. Especially if the gear turns out to be valuable.
Charl gently laid the miniature hand back alongside the gold coin, closed the box and drank the last of his pint.
“Who’ve said any about sellin’ ‘em?” said Charl, tying the ribbon and rewrapping the box in his handkerchief. “No need to sell ‘un, is there? Could just keep ‘un.”
Charl’s wife set his tea on the kitchen table, on which also were the silver box, ivory hand and gold coin. She looked at her husband with a contempt-tinged disbelief.
“Not sell them, Charl? What do you mean, not sell them? Of course you will. Don’t be so soft.
“I don’t know… It don’t seem… Be nice to have that box, or don’t ‘ee reckon.?”
“I’m not saying it ain’t pretty, Charl. But we’ve got a mortgage and a car and a baby to think about. If that box and things’s worth money you’d best get what ‘ur’s worth and not leave ‘un round here gathering dust.”
“Sam reckoned I ought to give ‘un back to the owners of the house. Didn’t say so, but I could tell that’s what ‘ur was thinkin’. Might be I ought to at least tell ‘em I found ‘un. Could let I keep ‘un anyway.
“’Course they would! And then they’ll ask if you’d like to have the house as well, and a free holiday in Tenerife. Do get sense, Charl. I’ve got to go. We’re playing to sports club tonight and Kath’s picking I up top of hill.”
“Right, girl,” said Charl as she kissed him perfunctorily while putting on a becoming and newly-bought grey suede jacket. “Have a good night.”
After she was gone Charl ate his meal and drank from a glass which he refilled with tinned lager. As he ate he looked, eyes troubled, at the things he had found hidden in the cottage wall, still glowing on the varnished pine tabletop. He also looked occasionally at a sheaf of papers held together by an outsized clothes-peg which hung by the telephone. Some were envelopes marked ‘Private and Confidential’ that had come from the building society. Others were bills from SWEB and BT and British Gas, several showing a red-lettered ‘Final Demand’. Having finished his tea, Charl laid the knife and fork on his plate and once again deliberately placed the coin with the young queen’s head and the infant’s hand of ivory back in the silver box and closed the lid.
Charl could not shut his eyes much less get to sleep. His wife had come home from her skittle night slightly ‘gone on’ from what she had had to drink and full of tiddly lustful affection. After their bout of lovemaking she had fallen into a deep and smooth-browed sleep. Her last waking words were that Charl would take the silver box to Harvey’s tomorrow, wouldn’t he?
After lying still on his back for nearly two hours, Charl swung his legs out of the bed and stood up. The silver box was on the bedside table, visible in the reddish glow given off by the numerals of the clock-radio. He picked it up and went to a rocking chair by the bedroom window. He sat, untied the blue ribbon, opened the box and tipped the sculpture and coin out onto his open palm.
The ivory had a dull sheen and the little hand, chubby, unformed, unlined and with the salient fingernails of the newly-born, seemed to Charl to have a strangely suppliant look. The gold coin, with its profile of the fetchingly self-possessed young queen, held in contrast a sense of its own completeness and integrity, as did the finely engraved, plush-lined silver box. After a few moments of staring at the objects Charl consciously fought off the mesmerizing effect their glowing symmetry was having on him and moved his gaze to the window.
The first light was beginning and he could just make out the shape of a wooded hill on the far side of the valley that edged that end of the town. The hill was called by natives ‘the sleeping giant’ because of its likeness to the outline of a prone man.
Why, wondered Charl, had Sam not wanted him to sell the things he had found in the wall cavity? Sam was not notable for being more scrupulous than were most people about taking advantage of any bit of bunce that might come his way. He knew a perk when he saw one and wasn’t the man to turn it down out of an over-developed sense of probity. No, it wasn’t outraged honesty that had been behind Sam’s tacit unease at the idea of Charl’s turning a profit on his discovery. He remembered that Sam, even more than the other men, had shown no desire to handle, or even look very closely at, the box and its contents. What then? Sam was a stonemason/bricklayer by trade and Charl had served part of his time under his instruction. His knowledge and recollections told him that Sam had always been a rigorous – almost a perfectionist – craftsman. He was aware that Sam took a genuine pleasure in stone; appreciating and enjoying each honey-coloured piece for its own individual shape and features. He was also a man who knew there was a proper way to do a job and wouldn’t stand for it not being done properly. Charl recalled vividly an occasion when, aged sixteen, he had received a clip on the ear from Sam after saying, “Well, that’s near enough,” about a piece of work he had thought finished and being told, “Near enough ain’t good enough! Do ‘un right, boy.” Sam, as well, had always been strict about small things. Any site that Sam worked on was always clean and tidy. Tools and machinery were looked after and kept in best order. And he conscientiously followed and performed the traditional rituals. Sam never topped out a job without… Ah, but that was just old builders’ superstition. And Sam was that old they said he’d priced up the job for Hadrian’s Wall. That was daft. And anyway, no builder would leave something like that in a wall: under a chimney-pot or in a fire-breast, but not in the rubble under a second-floor window. But if not the builder, then who…? And why?
Charl was not an unduly curious young man and he had no instinct for local history, nor any other kind, but he now wished he knew something more about the house he had been working in for the past seven weeks. The owners would probably know. They were that kind of people. Her especially. But how could he ask about the house and the people who might have lived there over the centuries without…? He tried to organize in his mind some of the scraps of local lore he had heard over the years, and felt for the first time a futile regret over the occasions when he had been impatient with Sam and the other of his elders; restless at their endless raking and pawing over what to him was dead and gone and best forgotten. What was the use of all that digging in the old bones and debris? Skip ‘em!
Charl placed the box and the hand and the coin on the window sill and stared at them. All three objects were undoubtedly beautiful and each had an aura about it: an aura accentuated by the translucent light of the warm pre-dawn hour in late spring. They did give off an unearthly…something. But they were what they were and nothing else. A silver box engraved with loving skill. A gold coin with the head of a comely young monarch; the ivory hand of a child who would almost certainly have been dead for a hundred years by now. If it had lived. They were what they were and nothing else. Nothing except, perhaps, valuable. Worth money to someone. And perhaps valuable – treasurable – in some other way to… someone else. Charl felt a tremor start from his heart and spread through his whole body. And through more than his body. His hand shook and he drew it away from the objects on the window sill and pressed both hands between his knees.
Charl’s wife rolled over in the bed. Her face, now visible to Charl from his seat by the window, appeared in sleep, as it did awake; that of a young woman pretty enough to justify her own vanity: a ripened child with uncomplicated desires that were pursued in an uncomplicated way. Charl and his whole domestic life were testimony to that. He turned his eyes from her to the things on the window sill and to the emergent silhouette of the sleeping giant.
Charl’s employer looked at him over the rim of her whimsically-patterned coffee mug as he applied a third coat of light stain to the window seat. She watched complacently as he laid off the cross stippling for a third time and then ran his brush along the grain of the wood for a last time. She had developed over two months a not-altogether condescending affection for Charl. Liking his solidity and reticence, and genuinely admiring his craftsmanship and conscientious diligence, she enjoyed talking about him to her friends and counterpointing his personality with that of his labourer, Jack, who fully qualified as an incomer’s idea of a genuine Somerset ‘character’.
She and her husband had been delighted on their return from France to find the house all but ready for a return to civilized living after the weeks of ‘having the builders in’. This being the third house she had moved into during her eight-year marriage, the experience was not novel but the tradesmen’s consideration and their efforts to, as Charl put it, “Keep down the noise and the mess, best way we can,” had made the ordeal much less tiresome than originally anticipated. And there was no denying the results. Her contented expression of fulfilled ownership deepened as she contemplated the room and, in her mind’s eye, the rest of the house. In their wildest dreams she and Philip had not imagined that the cottage would turn out to be so… so everything they could possibly have wanted. Charl and the other men he had brought in had performed miracles. Really. And that window seat, the feature of what was to be the master bedroom, had turned out to be the jewel in the crown.
She crossed to the window as Charl carefully laid his brush across the stain tin and took a step back to look at the finished effect.
“It’s wonderful, Charles,” she said. “Like all the work you’ve done. Simply beautiful.”
“Oh, ‘ur’s come up pretty well enough, I’d say.”
The woman set her coffee mug down on Charl’s workmate bench and took in the full effect of the warm, matte-stained hardwood, set against the fresh pastel silk emulsion of the walls and the lush white satinwood glow of the window frame. When its graceful angles and proportions were finely furnished with curtains and cushions, the whole picture she thought, would not look out of place in the pages of one of the up-market country living magazines.
Charl moved his gaze from the newly-finished work to the woman as she leaned over gracefully and rested her hand on the window frame, being careful not to touch the newly-stained wood.
“I know I’m going to spend as much time just admiring this seat as I will sitting in it and looking out the window. You are a genuine genius, Charles.”
As her free hand swept long, thick hair away from her eyes, and she looked serenely through the window at the golden bulk of the village church, Charl thought of what rested in the rubble underneath the new wood, directly below the airy young matron’s bending bosom. He pictured again the ribbon-wrapped, plush-lined silver box with its tarnished floral tracery, and he saw the ghostly little ivory hand. And the two coins now laid in its palm.
“Ah, not a bit. I be just a tradesman,” said Charl. “Mind, it’s a help if’e’ve served your time and been well trained up when you’re young. Not so many are nowadays. I be lucky.
Note: A slightly abridged version of this story was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 4th May 1995.