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The Sentimental Value of Money
The Sentimental Value of Money
by Charlie Fish 2007

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When I met Spencer Newton, he was a wreck.

I was eating my lunch in a busy café in downtown Brighton, lingering over a sandwich, avoiding the glares of the other customers who were waiting for a seat.

I smelled him first - sweat, smoke and urine - and then I saw the crowd part to let him through. He was young, eighteen or nineteen maybe. He wore a tattered evening suit and his hair looked as if someone had wiped their shoes on it.

He stumbled his way to the counter, knocking people with the giant sports bag over his shoulder, and demanded a pastry. The lady behind the counter narrowed her eyes.

"That's one pound seventy," she said, without fetching the pastry.

"Why can't I have it?" he pleaded.

"I'm sorry sir," said the lady, shaking her head. She turned to serve the next customer.

"Why can't I have it?" he repeated, starting to cry. "I don't understand."

He started shifting from one foot to another, almost stomping. I stared down at my sandwich, feeling tense and wishing he would go away. Eventually, the lady behind the counter turned back to him and asked him to leave.

"But I'm so hungry," he said. He pulled his sports bag over his shoulder and fumbled with the zip. "I'll trade you for some food."

"We don't do trades, sir -" the lady started, but when she saw what was in the bag, her words stuck in her throat.

It occurs to me that I might be the only person alive to know Spencer Newton's story. I doubt anyone has listened to him as much before or since. And after what I did I feel like the least I owe him is to share that story.

Spencer Newton was born in Woodingdean, in a grand Georgian mansion called Isaac House. Newt, as his father called him, was an only child; his mother had died at childbirth. His father kept the grief at bay by working extremely hard, which meant that Newt spent much of his childhood alone.

Newt's earliest memories were of long lectures from his father about the value of money. "Look after your money," his father would say, "a man's defined by his money these days."

Newt's father would tease a ringpull from a drinks can and show it to him. "I make a tenth of a penny every time one of these is manufactured, my boy," he would explain. "That sounds like a small amount, but a hundred and sixty-four billion of them were made last year for the transatlantic market alone."

One day, Newt's father showed him something that Newt never forgot. "See that frame on the wall there, boy?" he pointed, and he lifted Newt up to see it more closely. "That's my first royalty cheque from the Falls City Brewing Company, for the ringpulls. Even back then, when I was earning barely a grand a year, I knew I wanted to keep that cheque forever."

A tense silence settled in the café as Spencer Newton foraged through his sports bag. I glanced over to see what was drawing this menacing attention.

Spencer's sports bag was filled with money. Thousands of banknotes, loose coins, cheques, bonds and share certificates, all peppered with little velvet pouches. He fished out a fifty pound note and held it out to the lady behind the counter.

"I'll trade you this for a pastry."

Everyone in the café froze, their eyes locked on the contents of Spencer's sports bag. I peeled my gaze away for long enough to notice flashes of greed on the faces in the crowd.

I reacted quickly. I jumped up out of my chair and bounded towards the counter. "Paul!" I said with a smile, putting my arm around Spencer's shoulder. "Don't be ridiculous, this woman doesn't want your silly Monopoly money. Come on, I'll pay for the pastry so we can leave these people alone."

I bought him a can of drink as well, then I dragged him through the uneasy mob towards the exit. We had almost made it when a rotten opportunist plunged his hand into the still-open sports bag.

I tried to snatch the thief's hand away, but he was determined. I shoved into him, and both of us collapsed onto the floor, taking Spencer and his sports bag with us.

Banknotes exploded into the air, and coins clattered across the floor. There was a collective intake of breath as everyone in the café either braced themselves or pounced.

When Newt was seven years old, his father had a heart attack and died. With no other family that could be traced, custody of Newt passed to his uncle, William Newton, who accepted this duty with considerable reluctance. Uncle William also agreed to hold Newt's father's estate in trust, to be passed on to Newt when he turned eighteen.

Uncle William lived in Cardiff, so he left Newt's upbringing to the household's domestic staff. He arranged for Newt to get academic tuition at home.

Newt, desperate to keep his father's memory alive, took his father's lessons about the value of money to heart. He became obsessed. Uncle William, who was a keen numismatist and held an honorary position at the Royal Mint, was flattered by this and encouraged Newt's obsession.

Newt started to hoard notable coins and banknotes, and he became fascinated with stories about money and its history. His favourite children's television character was Scrooge McDuck, swimming in a vault of cash. Elgar was his favourite musician, by virtue of appearing on a twenty pound note. He learned the life histories of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian King Georges, whose reigns had produced some of the rarest and most valued guineas. He would smell the coins in his collection; feel the texture of the notes against his skin.

He acquired an ultraviolet light so he could detect the security features on modern banknotes, and he was fascinated when Uncle William told him that the occasional specks of white powder stuck to the notes was cocaine.

The head of the household's domestic staff was a butler called Joseph Eaves. Newt relied on Mr Eaves to feed him, clothe him, shop for him, and generally administer his life - in fact, Newt never left Isaac House except to go for quiet walks by the sea.

Mr Eaves attended to Newt's every beck and call; he indulged each of Newt's whims and fancies. Once, Newt read about the last gold coin to be struck by the Unites States Mint before President Roosevelt declared that gold coins were no longer legal currency. This coin, the "Double Eagle", had been stolen before the Mint could melt it down, and ended up as part of King Farouk of Egypt's collection before he was deposed in 1952. Newt was so enchanted by its story that he ordered Mr Eaves to acquire it.

Four months later, he did. Newt didn't even think to question how.

I threw my body over Spencer Newton's sports bag and stuffed back in as much of the cash as I could. Then I battered myself free of the chaotic crowd and heaved the remarkably heavy bag out of the door.

Spencer followed me out, screaming at me to give him back the bag. "Come with me!" I yelled back. "We need to go somewhere safe!"

I staggered under the weight of the bag, pitching myself towards the public park. Spencer was still shouting himself hoarse, tears streaming down his face as he hurled abuse at me.

We stumbled to a quiet corner of the park, and I dumped the sports bag on the ground. "There you go. Now zip it up before anyone else sees what's in it."

Spencer kneeled on the grass and rifled desperately through what remained of the money in the bag. With a visible sigh of relief he pulled out a small frame with cracked glass, which he hugged to his chest. As he replaced it, I saw that it contained a cheque.

He pulled out the can of drink and the half-mangled pastry. He wolfed down the pastry, apparently not caring that it had been on the floor, then he stared down at the can of drink and started picking at the ringpull. His eyes welled up again.

"You could've been in real trouble back there," I said.

"I'm still so hungry, can you help me?"

"You have heaps of cash in that bag, why don't you buy something yourself?"

He looked up at me plaintively. "I don't understand."

I sat down on the grass next to him. He was much younger than me, with a cheerless chubby face.

I fished some change from my pocket and offered it to him. "Here, take a couple of quid and go get yourself something. There's a hotdog stall over there."

Spencer's eyes opened wide as he took one of the coins. He smelled it, rubbed it against his cheek, ran a fingernail along its ridged edge. "I haven't seen one of these before. What is it?" he asked.

I played along. "What's it got on it? Is that a sailing ship?"

"A schooner."

"It must be a Jersey pound."

"Bailiwick of Jersey, one pound," read Spencer reverently. He turned the coin on its side and rotated it to read the inscription. "Insula Caesarea."

"That's great. It's worth about half a hotdog."

"Can you get me a hotdog?"

I was taken aback by his impertinence, yet this odd boy - and his bag of money - piqued my interest. I nodded, and held out my hand to take the pound back.

He ignored me, put the pound in his sports bag and started fussing over the rest of his collection.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'll take my quid back, please."

"I need it for my collection."

"It's just a pound coin, same as any other."

Spencer looked up at me with his brow tensed, and he shook his head.

When Newt was twelve, his uncle took him on a visit to Goldsmiths' Hall in London. Uncle William was now the Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, and as they drove into the city, he explained to Newt what his job entailed. Newt hung on every word. The conversation went something like this:

"My most important role is to gather currency for the Trial of the Pyx. That's where we're headed now, Newt, to hear the jury's verdict."

"What's the Trial of the Pyx, Uncle William?"

"A venerable institution of our country, that's what it is. It's been the same since the thirteenth century. Mind you," he explained as he lit a cigarette with a gloved hand, "I haven't overseen it myself for quite that long."

"What's a Pyx?"

"Through the year, it's my job to pick out thousands of sample coins from the minting plant in Llantrisant. I put them all into a special boxwood chest called the Pyx."

"Is it here?"

"The Pyx? No. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths has it. But we're going to pick it up. Now, we're nearly there, so be on your best behaviour. It's very rare that they let a child in to observe."

"What does the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths do with the coins?"

"They weigh them, measure them, divine their precise chemical composition, they taste them for all I know."

"What for, Uncle William?"

Uncle William pulled the car up outside a grand palazzo hall, where a valet stepped down to meet him. "Enough questions, Newt. Pass me my robes."

Newt watched his uncle dress into lavish ceremonial robes, then he let himself be led through the sumptuous hall. They entered a massive boardroom dominated by a crystal chandelier.

Some two dozen men stood or sat awaiting them in stiff silence. And in the middle of a long table was the Pyx, full of coins.

Newt watched in awe and listened intently as the man at the head of the table, who introduced himself as the Queen's Remembrancer, coordinated a fascinating ritual.

Newt revelled in the rhetoric about ancient tradition and due process, but most of all he was amazed by the coins and the reverence with which they were treated. There were so many different kinds - Maundy money, medals, sovereigns, proofs, commemorative coins, and dozens more.

At that moment, Newt knew what he wanted to do with his life.

I went and bought a hotdog for Spencer. I did not have enough cash to buy one for myself as well, since he had kept the Jersey pound.

I noticed my lunch hour was over - but I knew I had already made the decision to stay with Spencer for a bit longer. I would probably be fired again as a result, I thought to myself with a sigh.

"Did you lose much at the café?" I asked when I returned, handing him the hotdog. He ate it voraciously, ignoring the question.

I waited until he had finished, then tried again. "So what's in the bag that's so special?"

"My collection," he said, then his expression fell. "What's left of it."

"May I see some of it?"

Spencer's eyes lit up. "Really? You're really interested?"

I nodded, and he dived into the sports bag, pulling out a dizzying succession of coins and notes. "This ancient banknote was given to me by my father, these coins have pictures of a dragon on them, I took this one from a really beautiful beggar, look - the serial number on this fifty is a palindrome!"

"You took a coin from a beggar?" I asked, with a laugh.

Spencer withdrew again, wearing that increasingly familiar expression of confusion and hurt.

I looked at the money he had shown me. "But these are all just ordinary coins. I have coins like these. Look." I pulled out a handful of small change.

"What's the story behind those?"

"There is no story. They're just coins. This tenpence is just the same as that beggar's tenpence you've got."

Spencer held up the beggar's coin. "That isn't worth fifty of these. It's not worth a thousand. What's special about a coin without a story?"

"Is that why you won't spend any of that money? Is that why you're starving to death?"

"I'm starving to death because no-one will give me any food."

"People will give you food if you give them money!"

"Why should I give away my money? It's not fair that no-one will give me any food. Do they all hate me? I don't understand." He started crying again.

I took a deep breath. I could see that I was going to have to take a different approach.

"What's your name, my friend?" I asked, smiling.

"Spencer," he sniffed. "Spencer Newton."

In his teenage years, Newt started spending a lot more time with his uncle. Uncle William felt flattered by Newt's interest in his job at the Royal Mint, although he left the finer points of Newt's upbringing to the fawning domestic staff at Isaac House.

Newt went back with Uncle William to Wales sometimes, and when he was sixteen years old, he started working a day a week at the Royal Mint.

Newt's job was to help the supervisors of the various lines with menial tasks. He was in his element, surrounded by a factory full of coins and banknotes. He tried to make friends with the staff at the mint, but they never seemed to want to talk about money.

On Newt's eighteenth birthday, Uncle William paid a visit to Isaac House. They sat down together, Mr Eaves fetched them drinks, and Uncle William adopted an even more serious tone of voice than usual. He explained that the time had come for Newt to receive his inheritance.

Uncle William spent the next two hours detailing the technical points of the administration of the legacy. Newt nodded politely, although most of it went over his head.

Newt was relieved when Uncle William left. There had been far too much talk about responsibility and sensible financial management, none of which he understood. He was confused because he was supposed to have inherited so much money, and yet he had received nothing. Where was all that beautiful currency?

The butler, Mr Eaves, chose that moment to step in. He smiled at Newt, clasped his hands together, and said: "Would you like me to assist with the administration of your accounts, sir?"

"After that, I got a higher security clearance at the mint, because I was eighteen and my uncle vouched for me. It meant I could handle the currency," Spencer explained, and then he hesitated.

I had listened to his story with interest, encouraging him and prompting him every now and then. We were still on the grass in the park, me reclining lazily, conscious that the grass was staining my work clothes, and him sitting up and hugging his sports bag.

"Go on," I said.

His cheeks flushed red and his voice was small. "Well, I took one of each of the coins from the plant, you know, for my collection. Then my uncle took me aside, and I thought he was going to talk to me about the coins, but he didn't."

"What did he say?"

"He was angry. He told me that in the process of devolving the trust of my father's money he'd discovered that my butler, Mr Eaves, had been defrauding millions of pounds from the estate. He asked me if I'd done what he told me to do, to transfer my inheritance and keep it safe. I told him Mr Eaves was doing it for me."

"Did your uncle try and stop him?"

"Uncle William was really angry. I thought he was going to hit me. He called me all kinds of mean things, then he told me we had to go straight home and talk to Mr Eaves. But as I left the mint, an alarm went off. I got searched and they found the coins I took."

Spencer started crying again. I tried to comfort him, but to no avail. He made no effort to cover his face, so I sat there fidgeting as his tears soaked his collar.

When he started talking again, it was in broken speech, punctuated with sobs. "The supervisors - my uncle - they looked at me - like they hated me. They said I was never - never welcome there again."

I met his eyes, and he calmed his expression into stolid resignation. "The driver took me back to Isaac House, but when we got there it was burnt down. Mr Eaves was missing. There were still some firefighters and policemen there, looking through what was left. One of them showed me what had been saved, including some of my money collection. I didn't want to speak to the police, because I didn't want to be in trouble, so I put everything I could into this bag and I ran away."

"What a story," I said. "So you've got nothing left other than what's in that bag? None of your father's money or anything?" He shook his head.

I sat back and mulled over a difficult decision that had been playing in the darker recesses of my mind, considering the emotional consequences against the rewards. I tried to suppress my instinct but in the end it got the better of me. I relaxed my expression, and said, "I'm touched by your story. I'd love to help you get back on your feet. Would you like to come and stay with me for a while?"

His tired eyes filled with gratitude. "Yes. Please help me."

"I'll take you there right away." We got up and started walking. Spencer held his bag close to his chest.

"You know," I said, "one twenty pound note is worth the same as another twenty pound note. They're all the same size, shape, texture, and value. It's worth exactly twenty pounds, not more or less."

"That's wrong," said Spencer. "Photographs are all the same size, shape and texture, aren't they? Their value comes from the story behind them."

Spencer ferreted through his sports bag as we approached the train station, and pulled out a handful of notes and coins. "This twenty pound note once belonged to the Prime Minister. And this fiver has a mysterious phone number written on it. This gold guinea was struck to commemorate a British naval victory in 1703."

"Well, that one is worth more than the others."

"Why?" he asked as we entered the train station.

"Well, because it's three hundred years old, and solid gold by the look of it. That's our train, let's go. We don't need a ticket, they never check."

"Why should that make it more valuable?" he asked as we ran for the train. "It doesn't make it any more useful."

"Well, because it's rare, I suppose."

"It's no rarer than a banknote with a palindromic serial number," he said as we boarded the train.

Spencer sat down, exhausted, and dropped his bag on the table. "I've never been on a train before," he said. The beeps sounded to indicate that the doors of the train were about to close.

I saw my opportunity - at last! I snatched the sports bag and bounded off the train a second before the doors closed.

It took Spencer a few seconds to realize what had happened, by which time it was too late. He threw himself against the door on the inside of the train, clawing at the metal frame, but it was locked shut. He banged against the door and screamed at me, turning red.

I stood there and watched him. Tears streamed down his face. He fell to his knees and begged through the window.

I felt an echo of pity and dropped to the floor to look through the bag. The train pulled away and Spencer started running along the carriage to keep me in sight.

I found what I was looking for: the framed royalty cheque that had belonged to Spencer's father. I grabbed it, abandoned the sports bag and ran alongside the train.

For a moment I was matching the pace of the train, and I could hear Spencer's bawls of rage and anguish. I pushed the frame through a narrow ventilation window and then stopped to let the train go ahead.

My last glance of Spencer Newton saw him crouching against the window of the train, hugging the frame and crying. Soon the platform was terribly quiet and empty, apart from me and the bag of money.

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