Changeling’s Island – Snippet 20

He’d forgotten that he’d taken that.

He sat and stared at it for a long time.

That might be far enough, if they didn’t just send him back.

Only it would cost a fortune.

And right now he only had thirty-five dollars.

Thirty dollars he’d worked for. Five dollars Gran had taken from her tin box, and he hadn’t spent. Like she could only give him five dollars!

And now Hailey was ignoring him. And she’d probably tell everyone he was a thief. Like Gran thought he was, when she found the money in his pockets. What had she been doing in his pockets anyway? A reasonable part of his mind said, probably emptying them before she washed your jeans. He ignored it. If she could look in his stuff and take, he could look in hers. If she thought he was a thief, he might as well be one.

He went to her room and pulled the small old tin box from under the neatly made bed. He had a big twinge of “you shouldn’t be doing this,” but he did it anyway. The box wasn’t even locked. He put it on the bed and opened it.

Thousands of dollars did not spill out. There was a thin little sheaf, mostly of five-dollar notes, on top of a pile of slightly yellowed envelopes. During the week, in conversation, he’d fished from Molly the cost of a flight to Melbourne. Without even counting the money Tim knew that it wasn’t enough. The paper clip holding the notes together was rusty and old.

Tim picked up one of the envelopes, the top one. It was addressed to Mary Ryan, care of Whitemark Post Office. It had been carefully opened.

Feeling decidedly uncomfortable…but now that he’d come this far, Tim took out what was inside. It was just a letter, the folds cracking slightly.

In spite of himself Tim couldn’t help but read part of the first page. It was very neat, round-lettered upright writing, as if written by someone trying very hard, who hadn’t done a lot of writing:

“My Darling Mary,

Here in Saigon it is so hot and sticky it’s hard to breathe. I miss the Island and the Cuckoo’s Nest nearly as badly as I miss you and my boy, my love. I just hope you’ve got enough money for…”

Tim stopped reading, put the letter carefully back in the envelope. On the back in the same big, round hand was the sender’s address. It started with “Private JM Ryan” and a number. Shaking himself and feeling creeped out and guilty, Tim carefully put it back, and put the box under the bed again.

He went back to his room, chewing his bottom lip. That must be from, like, fifty years ago, and she still kept it.

The phone started ringing. It didn’t do that much. Tim went and answered it. It was McKay. “Hello, Tim. Sorry, not going to sea, but do you want some more work on the boat?”

Tim heard the kitchen door open. It was obviously his grandmother back, and he did stammer somewhat, thinking what could have happened if she’d come back two minutes earlier. “Uh, yes, I…I have to ask my grandmother. She’s just come in.”

“It’ll be about three hours tomorrow afternoon.”

So Tim held his hand in front of the mouthpiece, and asked. His grandmother nodded. “There’s a bit of work on the farm to do, a bit of fencing, but I can manage. I have, all these years.”

“It’s only in the afternoon. If you get me up early, I’ll do it.” Even as he said it, Tim thought he was crazy. Early? He was offering to get up early. But he was still feeling guilty.

It did get a hint of a wintery smile from the old woman. “Go. I’ll cut yer lunch.”

So Tim confirmed, arranged a time to be at the corner, as his grandmother made a pot of tea.

“So how was yer show?” she asked, pouring the tea. “I used to go every year, but I haven’t for twenty years now.”

“You should. Your veggies would win, hands down.” Tim stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out the five-dollar note. “I didn’t spend it.”

She didn’t take it. “I gave it to yer to have some money to spend there. Buy some stuff.”

Tim shrugged. How could he explain that most things cost more than five dollars unless he wanted food or junk, and that anyway he had been hoarding it…and that having looked in her little tin box…he couldn’t keep it now. “I just looked at things. I…I didn’t want to waste money. And I’m earning some money.”

His grandmother took the note. “You’re a different boy to yer father. I’ll put it back with the emergency fund then. My John always said I must put a bit there for a rainy day. Money does seem a bit tight, Tim. Stock prices have been terrible.”

Tim blinked a bit at this. Several of the kids in his grade were farmers’ or farmworkers’ children, and beef prices had been mentioned. It sounded like a lot of money to him. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “We’ll manage. This is our place. Been through tough times before. Yer granddad’s family were some of the first people to farm on the island.”

“Molly’s dad asked.”

“There’s a lot of history here, some of it best forgotten,” said his grandmother, in a way that said parts of it were best not asked about. “But yer belong here. This is yer place. Now we need to move them sheep.”

No, it wasn’t his place. His place was Melbourne, thought Tim. A place where you didn’t spend hours chasing sheep through the bush. But at least the next day he’d get out, earn some more money.

Better yet, the next day after McKay had picked him up, he was sweeping out the sawdust inside the boat’s new structures, when he came across an old bag, about the size of his fist. It was a neat leather pouch with a drawstring. He’d almost swear it had just appeared among the sawdust and shavings, but it must have been lying under something. There were a couple of coins in it — black and green…but that was with age.

He showed it to McKay. “Right. I wonder how long that’s been there. It’s someone’s little change pouch, I reckon. What’s the date on the coins? Must be before the 1966 changeover.”

Tim peered. “The black one is 1945. The other…It’s quite worn. Nineteen thirty-something.”

“Right. Well, it’s been around a while! Nice little oilskin bag, too. It’s a real sailor’s thing. Quite a find for you. Wish I was that lucky.”

Tim held it out to him. “It’s your boat.”

McKay shook his head. “It’s some long dead fisherman’s lost property, and you may as well have it. You found it, after all. I was working there yesterday. If I’d cleaned up after myself, I would have found it. So, there you go. A start to your fortune. Your first piece of silver. I think it’s probably worth about five dollars by now.”

“Wow. Thanks!”

Tim hung the oilskin bag from a piece of old hand-line cord around his neck, and added the rest of the money into it, in the Ziploc.

* * *

Áed had found the old pouch and its coins between two floor planks. It had been dropped there when the board had been nailed on, and no human could reach it. He understood his master wanted money. Why he was collecting paper, though, was beyond him. Real wealth was copper, or silver, or gold.

His master was still largely unaware of the sprite of air and darkness that was loyal to him. But he’d taken to the old ways and courtesies taught by his grandmother. And sometimes he blinked as if he almost saw Áed, but refused to believe what he saw. That was quite a common problem for humans.