Breeding Coins

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story about coming of age in a big city.... view prompt


Coming of Age Inspirational Friendship

Cold, crap covered cobbles assaulted Neville’s nose. Rubbing his filthy hands together, he watched his breath mist the air.

            “Keep up, Neville Cobbler, when the door to the workhouse closes you starve. If you want a meal, you turn the wheel.”

            “I know, Albert, I know. Quit using my full name. You’re my brother, not my father.” He ran to keep up with the boy whose strong gait belied years of hard labour.

            Orphans in brown rags pushed for a place by the workhouse door. Banging off the doorframe, they pushed their way inside MacGuiver’s Workhouse 2. Words painted in white in red brick were turning black from soot like everything else in the city.

            “You,” said the whipman. “Get out of here, scrawny little nothings waste space on the wheel.” He picked a malnourished boy from the throng and tossed him over the crowd, into the cold embrace of cobbles.

            “Is he alright?” Neville asked.

            “He’ll be fine,” said Albert. “Don’t look back unless you want to join him.”

After three hours of walking on the wheel to mill corn into flour, they ate their watery porridge. The long table sat twenty other orphans. Seven identical tables were used in shifts.

            “There’s fur in mine,” said one boy with a black eye.

            “Good, maybe there’s some meat in it then,” said a girl next to him. She lifted the bowl to her mouth. Sitting the empty wooden promise on the scratched table again she looked at it, trying to summon a second helping that would never come.

            “If I had two coins to rub together, I’d breed them,” said the girl. She was still looking at her bowl.

            “Can you really breed coins?” Neville asked. His face lit with the glow of naivety.

            “Course not, idiot.” Albert scowled at him. “What kind of daft question is that?”

            “How old are you, Neville?” Asked the girl.

            “Four,” he replied.

            “Barely,” said Albert. He looked at the girl. “If you had two coins, that would be two more than the rest of us. Don’t put daft dreams in his head, Mary. Hope is dangerous.”

            “He’s right, boy,” said a man with a beard sitting opposite them. “The more you get your hopes up, the further you fall back to reality.” The man picked his nose and looked at it, disappointed.

Night fast approached as they emptied their third bowl of watery something that day. Rusty hinges creaked until the heavy doors of Workhouse 2 slammed to say goodnight.

            Tired, they walked the streets back to the church that housed the homeless.

            “Both of you, hands up. I want your money.” His voice was that of a man who’d started smoking on his way down the birth canal. Yellow fingers gripped a chipped carving knife.

            “What money?” Albert asked. “We don’t have any.”

            “Liar,” the man growled. He was shaking. Even Neville recognised the signs of withdrawal. He was an opium addict. He kicked Albert in the stomach with a pointed leather boot. He was man only built for bullying children.

            “Hey, leave him alone.” Neville ran to his brother’s aid, feet sliding in filth. He was knocked aside with a casual slap that put him on the ground by Albert.

            “Stupid brats,” said the man with the arched back. His nobly knee pressed down on the older Cobbler’s chest. “Where is it? I’ll take the money and go. Where is it?” The questions became vicious hissing as he patted down the pauper and realised his mistake. “Better just kill you then, aint I? Can’t have you squealing to someone.”

            Hovering to stab down, the dull knife did its best to catch moonlight for a hope of looking silver. Neville threw himself at the rakish arm of the addict. He sank his teeth into what passed for flesh dragged over the man’s arm.

            Dropping his knife, the opium craver swore. “I’m gonna kill you!”

            “No. I’ve got the knife now.” Albert held it out in front of him like a magic wand. “Run away or you’re the dead one.”

            Rattish eyes looked between the boys. Gripping the bite on his arm, he shuffled away.

            “You alright, Albie?”

            “Yeah. You alright Nevie?”

            “Yeah. Let’s get back to the church. I don’t want to be shut out for the night.”

The torch by the church door was the last on. Black finger shadows stretched from the graves across the path to their respite. Albert held Neville’s hand.

            “Are we too late, Mother Constance?” Albert whispered to the old nun sitting in a chair by the lamp.

            “You should be, since I like you, I’ll open the door. Don’t wake anyone.” The wizened woman gave them a wrinkly smile. Her key appeared from nowhere as it always did. She gently turned it in the huge lock. Placing a finger on her lips, she rushed them inside. “Goodnight, boys. Sleep tight. May the gods be with you.”

            “And with you, Mother Constance.” Both bowed and tiptoed into the darkness of the overcrowded dormitory. Bunk beds creaked. Orphans and families alike snored. Their usual bed was taken. It was too late to complain. They found a spare potato sack on the floor and cuddled up together.

            “Remember what Mary said about rubbing two coins together?” Albert asked in his most silent whisper.

            “What about it?” Neville asked, he winced as someone nearby broke wind.

            “Now we can. Two coins from that man with the knife. Two coppers, but that’s better than nothing.”

            “Let me see,” said the younger boy in an excited voice, forgetting to whisper.

            People all around shushed them.

            “In the morning,” Albert promised. He wrapped an arm around Neville and held him close. Life had been hard since the plague took their parents. The landlord had retaken the cobbler’s shop.

            Dear gods, Neville prayed, I know it’s a silly thing to ask for, but please give me the power to breed coins. Many people in the city suffer without coin to feed themselves. I want to help them. I want to eat chicken. I want to know what pork tastes like. Please.

            He looked away from the stained glass of the window and closed his eyes.

Why not, Neville Cobbler, it might be fun. Be careful what you pray for though.

After sipping water with hints of parsnip in it, the boys left the church for the workhouse.

            “Show me the coins,” Neville said in a conspiratorial whisper as other snorers tripped away through the kirkyard into the smog of Black City.

            “Alright. Keep ‘em ‘idden. Don’t want anyone taking them.” Albert reached into his hole covered shoe and pulled out a clenched fist. He pressed it into Neville’s hand. Looking about, the older brother nodded.

            “Don’t remember the last time I saw coins,” said the younger Cobbler.

            “That’s because the workhouse is a trap. No money made, no way to leave. You always have to go back. You need the food. They make all the money. The whipman don’t even make much coin from it. Better to be him than us though. He gets a bed, nice clothes, and a job long after he can’t work.”

            “Have a baby,” Neville said to the coins, he rubbed them together.

            “What are you on about? Give them back.” Albert opened his palm.

            “Talking to the coins. I prayed I could make more before I slept.”

            “Shows what you know about the gods. I-” Albert counted three coins, nodded then bent to stash them. “Wait. Three.” He looked at Neville. “There’s three coins now.”

            “It worked,” the little brother squeaked. He smiled. “We can help people now.”

            “Where did you get it?” Albert asked, looking at the younger boy with suspicion in his blue eyes.

            “What do you mean?”

            “Did you take it off that man last night? Got more? Show me.” Albie tugged and patted at Neville’s clothes.

            “No. I made it. Watch.” The grubby boy held out his dirty hand again.

            The older brother looked at the clock on the church. They would only make it to the workhouse if they ran. “Here.” He gave the three coins back.

            Neville closed his fingers around the coins and rubbed them together. When he opened his hand, four copper coins sat on his palm. “Albie. You alright? What’s wrong?”

            His brother’s eyes were wide, brimming with tears. The older Cobbler hugged his brother tight. “Nothing’s wrong, Nevie. We’re never going to go hungry again. Keep doing it. Make more.”

            Closing his palm, the younger brother rubbed the coins against each other and felt a new mass push his fingers apart. Instead of four coins, there were six.

            “Why is it six now?” Neville asked.

            “What did you pray for?” Eyes red with veins were wide, peering at the little boy.

            “I asked the gods to let me breed coins.”

            “Two.” Albert said, nodding. “When there are two you get another. Use both hands.”

            Neville closed both hands over the six coins, rubbed them together and opened his fingers again. There were nine coins.

            Nine coins made four more. Thirteen coins made six more. That was too many. Neville couldn’t fit them in his hands. The magic only seemed to work if he couldn’t see the coins. Albert stashed two coppers in between a gravestone and the overgrown grass of the church yard.

            When they had twenty-one copper coins, they exchanged them for silvers at a market stall. The merchant wasn’t kind enough to change the money for free. He’d seen how eager they were.

            With silver coins they bought nice food.

            Neville didn’t think he’d ever eaten apple pie before. The last apple he’d eaten had been stolen. His shoes had no holes. His shirt was green. His jacket and breeches were fine wool, woven right there in Black City by children like him.

            “Should we help the other children?” Neville asked.

            “We should. Once we’ve helped ourselves. Twenty silver coins make a gold. I think. You need ten gold to open an account at the bank. If we can do that, we’ll never want for food again. No one can take that from us. We could buy a house Neville. We could buy back the shop.”

            “I don’t know how to make shoes,” said the little brother. It was too much.

            “Don’t cry,” said Albert. He held Neville’s shoulders. “The gods answered your prayer. Now we will repay them by living a better life. We can be richer than the King if we’re careful.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “If people recognise us and see us with all this money, they’ll think we stole it.”

            “But we didn’t.” Nevie frowned.

            “I know. But that won’t matter. They’ll lock us up. We need to be careful. Alright?”

            Neville nodded. People are mean. Why would us having money be wrong?

Albert booked them a room in an inn for a week. “Going back to the church would show people we’ve got money now.” He searched the room for somewhere secret to stash silver coins. He’d purchased dozens of cheap coin purses. When each was full, they were hidden between the roof and the tiles. Neville was in awe of his brother as the older boy clambered along the beams.

            “Are we rich now?” Neville asked.

            “We are,” said Albert. All we need now is that bank account. We should buy better clothes tomorrow and exchange the silver for some gold at the same time. “I love you, Nevie.”

            “I love you, Albie.”

People who had gold in their purses wore powder makeup and had frills on their clothes. The boys felt like ridiculous peacocks in their new outfits. Albie wore maroon trimmed with gold. Neville wore navy blue with yellow slits down it.

            The bank was the most audacious building in the city besides the palace.

            “This itches,” said Neville, scratching his brand new wig. Awed blue eyes looked up and up at the spires of the black stained bank. The Maguire-Avelli family lived in the upper floors of the building, their own personal palace. Many said they had more money than the king.

            “I don’t like it either, but no one will ever recognise us looking like this. Don’t talk while I open the account. We need to fit in here.” Albert Cobbler strode in looking as though he was home. When guards with halberds and matchlocks barred the way, the boy offered them a gold coin each with a haughty tone Neville had witnessed him practicing with the tailors.

            Both guards stood aside to let the boys past. The armed men exchanged puzzled looks and shrugged as the Cobblers strolled into the bank.

            “I’m here to open an account,” Albert said, looking down his nose at a man in a brown uniform printed with the gold logo M and A on a shield. A badger and a unicorn, both stitched in gold, held the letters.

            “Certainly, young master. May I have your name please?” The man bowed his head, grey eyes not breaking contact with Albert’s.

            “Albert William Conner.” The older boy said the name as if the man should already know. Neville was both impressed and scared that his brother lied so well.

            “Very good, Master Conner. If you’ll come with me. I assume you have the equivalent of ten gold coins to open the account?” The banker sounded just as fake as Albert, someone who had learned to be prim and proper, but not born to it.

            Walking over chequered brown and white granite tiles that were polished to a mirrored shine, they approached a caged window.

            “How may I be of service? Asked a woman in a similar uniform to doorman.

            Albert gave her a bag of thirty-five gold coins, a purse of twenty silver coins and a purse of eighteen copper coins.

            “You’ll have to sign the account deed with your full name and imprint it with your handprint,” said the woman whose hair seemed to have greyed before its time. She had freckles across her nose and cheeks.

            “Of course,” said Albert with a wavering voice. “Is there anywhere I could sit down to do it? Father told me to open an account for myself. He forgot to mention that the window was quite so high.”

            The woman smiled a kindly grin and looked at the porter.

            Albert and Neville were led to a quiet room with a writing desk and a painting of a horse race in a gold frame. “I forgot there would be writing,” said Albie.

            “Go slowly?”

            “I’ll have to.” Face scrunched up, the older boy did his best with ink and quill. “There. That’ll have to do,” he said, forgetting to put on his new accent.

            “It’s done,” said the older boy to his little brother. “No one can take that money from us now. They skipped down the twenty steps to the bank with light hearts and empty purses.

            “You kept two gold?” Neville asked.

            “Of course. Two of each. Make it three when we’re out of sight.”

Their next stop was Workhouse 2. Albert gave the whipman a silver to find Mary.

            “What for, if you don’t mind me asking, little master?”

            “I do mind.” Albie handed the child beater a copper. “Find her and no more questions, or will I take the money back?”

            “No, sorry sir.” Browbeaten, the brute of a man found the girl and brought her out.

Mary emerged, face awash with dust and fright. Albert introduced himself as Master Conner and offered Mary a job at his father’s house.

            “Yes, please. Thank you, sir.”

            “Good day, whipman.” Albert flourished a hand at the thug and began walking away.

            “Gooday, sir.” Narrowed eyes followed the three as they walked away.

At the inn, they revealed their secret to Mary.

            “What? Magic? That’s nonsense.” She stroked the cotton sheets of the bed.

            “It was your idea!” Neville shouted, far too loudly.

            “You need to help my cousin Robbie, he’s in Workhouse 1.” Mary frowned, trying to insist.

            “Then we will, next week. We need to look the part. I’ll hire tutors for all of us. We’ll learn to read and write.”

            Albert had Mary bathed and measured. He told the seamstress Mary was to be fitted for a maid’s uniform but bought her a young lady’s wardrobe instead. Like Albert, she was good at accents. Her part was their sister, younger than Albert, older than Neville.

            By the end of the week, they had a tutor, a tailor, and their own apartment with a guard. Their mysterious father, not the real life buried one, was rumoured to be philandering in the brothels.

Neville worked out the trick to his gift. He could close his eyes, rub his hands together continuously and the coins would fall as drops of rain. Claiming that their gambling father was on a hot streak, they deposited huge sums of gold at the Maguire-Avelli bank. Women came to enquire after their father, hoping to be kept women of the frivolous man.

            Every week they hired another orphan from the workhouses. Never two weeks straight from the same workhouse.

            Rumours began after a month. People questioned where the money came from. No one had ever met the infamous Connor patriarch. Were his sons and daughters thieves?

King’s guards hammered on the door of their apartment in the middle of the night.

            “How can I help you, sirs?” Albert asked when his manservant had opened the door.

            “You and your brother have been summoned to answer to claims of theft before the king.” The man’s voice was booming. His black and gold leather armour matched his sword and pistol.

            “Neville, what have you done?” Albert asked. “Never mind. This is all a misunderstanding.” He baulked at the sight of handcuffs. “Go quietly, brother. You’re a Conner. We’ll clear this whole thing up and be back by dinner.” Though he smiled, Neville saw the terror in Albert’s eyes.

September 19, 2022 07:28

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Michał Przywara
21:07 Sep 20, 2022

There's some great dramatic motion in this piece. We feel for the orphans in their misery, we cheer when they get a break, we fear what will happen when it goes too far, and we celebrate when they pull their friends up with them. And then the end leaves us with a deep sense of dread :) The setting, with its cold filth, comes through strong, and the two brothers (and Mary) have distinct voices. There's a strong Dickensian feel to it all, in no small part due to the downtrodden orphans. The end is a cliffhanger, and it looks dire, but I do...


Graham Kinross
21:11 Sep 20, 2022

It should be patriarch. I need to change that. Thank you for reading. I don’t know whether to do a sequel or not. It might be more enigmatic to leave it as it is. It should be Albert as well, I’m really bad with names. Thanks, I made those edits. There was going to be more with the king but I ran out of space. I’ll see what the response to this is and decide whether to do another based on that.


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Aoi Yamato
01:10 Aug 23, 2023

this is cool.


Graham Kinross
03:06 Aug 23, 2023

Thanks Aoi.


Aoi Yamato
03:54 Aug 23, 2023



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