The King's Shilling

By Ronald S Bell

Expectant of something long forgotten, they wait. Chins rest on chest, vacant television eyes, gaping mouthed snores, their minds drift and bob like the peas in yesterday’s soup. They wait for bed, they wait to get up, they wait for the visiting relation they can’t quite place, they wait for the silent ambulance. In a quiet corner of Hawthorn Vale’s musty lounge George waits for eight o’ clock. Tonight George will check out for good.

His overnight bag is packed and safely secreted by the garden shed. Hairbrush - he still has hair - toothbrush and toothpaste - likewise teeth - spare spectacles, socks, cap, wallet and bus pass. The cheap clock with its large stupid face ticks on. Coronation Street finished, George, as quickly as his rheumatic bones will allow, springs into action. Giving the duty nurse the ‘going to bed early’ routine he heads for his room but instead he slips swiftly - as he has for seventy something years - toward the garden door, gently closing it behind him. Crossing the wet lawn he retrieves his bag, pulls his cap down, turns up his collar and like Harry Lime disappears into the shadows. The chill air catches in the old man’s chest and he splutters into his handkerchief whilst in the still mist and drizzle the street lights hang like patient angels.

George’s bifocals steam up as he boards the bus and, contemptuously ignoring the ‘Please give these seats up for the elderly’ sign makes his way to an empty window seat congratulating himself on his successful escape. With the steady hum luring him to sleep he is barely aware of the adjoining seat being occupied by a fresh faced youth with his face buried in a mobile phone. Outside the night rolls by shrouded in deceitful mist. George wakes with a start.

‘Is that thing permanently attached to your hand?’

The youth looks up from the screen, ‘I’m booked into hospital next week to have it removed.’

Inwardly, the old man smiles, rather taken with his new companion.

‘I’m George.’

‘Callum.’ He replies.

‘So Callum, where are you headed on this cold, dreich night?’

‘I’m going to Inverness for the week, I’m staying with my uncle for the school holidays.’

‘Oh, me too,’ says George, adding hastily, ’er, not staying with your uncle I mean, going to Inverness’.

They both laugh which brings on a coughing fit for George who hastily covers his mouth.

‘Well I actually get off before that, my uncle stays in Culloden village.’

‘Well that is a coincidence. I’m staying in Inverness tonight and heading for the battleground tomorrow morning.’ Says George. ‘Don’t your parents take you on holiday?’

‘Oh they do, especially in the summer. They’ve flown off with my wee sister to Costa del something. I get fed up on the beach, with the heat and hotels where everybody smiles too much.’

‘Ha, I know what you mean.’ 

‘My uncle and I go fishing or walking in the hills.’ 

‘Aha, my kind of holiday too. Out in the drizzle with the midges!’

The bus cuts on through the night, by orange lit towns, by curtained windows, by shops closed for the night, by shops closed for good, by the half empty pubs and forgotten churches.

‘You laugh at me and my phone, what’s that you're hiding in your hand?’

Startled, as if his mind had been far away, the old man opens his hand. ‘It’s an old coin, I’ve had it since I was younger than you.’

‘Is it valuable?’ 

‘Only to me my friend. I guess you might call it my lucky charm.’

‘And has it been lucky?’

‘Sometimes I think yes, other times...ach it’s just an old coin, who knows?’

‘It looks old.’

‘Oh it is, you can just about see the King’s head; I’ve nearly rubbed him away.’

The old man hands Callum the coin.

‘Where did you get it?’ He asks, gently smoothing his fingers over it.

‘Well, that’s the funny thing. When I was a wee lad, in the days before fancy visitor centres and cream scone cafes, when you just louped the fence, my father took me to Culloden Moor. Anyway, he was rummaging about amongst cairns and ditches when he picked this up from the peat bog. I can see his smile yet. “Ahaa,” says he, “the King’s Shilling!”’

The boy eyes him quizzically.

‘The King’s shilling was a bribe, nothing more. They used to hand it out to boys like yourself, to join the army and fight for the King.’

‘For a shilling? Stuff that!’

‘A shilling was a lot to young lads with nothing. They’d even pop one into your beer and when you’d drank up and fished it out, they had you; you’d accepted, fame, fortune and glory, God Save the King! I always imagined some young lowlander caressing this coin as he died, chopped up by a claymore no doubt, thinking of home and his sweetheart. What a waste, all for a doomed rebellion.’

George coughs heavily into his bloodied handkerchief, removes his bifocals and wearily wipes his eyes.

‘Anyway’, brightening up, ‘I thought I’d take it back, return his coin, if I can remember the spot.’

‘Would you like a mint for that cough George?’

‘Thanks son, I will.’

‘Are you ok?’

‘Right as rain, right as rain.’

‘I think that’s great George. Taking it back I mean; kinda lays it to rest.’

The old man looks out of the window at the black shrouded night. Soon the orange glow of Inverness will appear.

‘My stop is just coming up, George, here’s your coin back.’

‘I tell you what, why don’t you keep a hold of it for me.’

‘But won’t your luck run out?’

‘I don’t think so Callum. Goodbye, son.’

George watches through the window as the lad collects his suitcase. The bus lurches on and his smiling face disappears into the dark, as if he had never been there.

chance encounter, personal rebellion, the king's shilling