The Curate’s Coin: A short story by Jeremy de Quidt
by Totally Random on Oct 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm

There is a church just down the hill from my house, I know it very well; the pews are wooden and worn, and the carved ends of the benches are turned with flowers and faces, all smoothed with the rubbing of hands over the years. The house closest to the church is a small one, right next to the graveyard. I’m not sure that I’d like to live there – it has a deep cellar. Even now, there’s no light in that cellar, you have to take your own torch or candle down with you if you want to see your way, but it’s more interesting if you don’t – least if you light your way down the steps, then put out the light out at the bottom, because then you’re in the cold, damp dark, and the cellar wall next to you at the bottom of the steps is the only thing between you and the mouldering coffins in the graveyard – they’re actually just the other side of it.

Maybe it’s a quirk of the building but, when you’re down there, you can’t hear a noise from the house above, not even from the world outside. It’s absolutely silent. But if you put your ear to the bricks of the wall when a new grave is being dug, you can hear the sound of the shovel breaking the ground. You can hear the ropes and the sound of the coffin as well, bumping against the sides of the hole as it’s lowered in. I was in the cellar once when it happened, so I can tell you that it’s true.

There’s a story that goes with that house, and I think that story is why I wouldn’t like to live there, not just because of the cellar, but because of what happened in it.

In Victorian times, it used to be the curate’s house. Curates aren’t well paid now, and they weren’t well paid then. It must have been a hard life for a curate with a large family to feed, and this one particular curate who lived there had a wife and seven children, all in that one-up one-down house at the edge of the graveyard. It was a life that was wretched and unremitting and one dark desperate night he decided that he would end it all. He took a rope and a stool down with him into that deep cellar and was going to hang himself from its wooden beam – you can still see the hook in wood where he tied the rope – but even as he stood on the stool something caught his eye – a glint in the candle light. It was a silver coin stuck through a crack in the bricks of the cellar wall, the wall next to the graveyard. He took the rope from his neck and pulled the coin out. It made his hand feel cold and numb as he held it. It was worth as much as a month’s wages. Someone must have lost it there years before. He put the stool and the rope away and that money bought milk and bread and meat and coal, and for that month the house was warm and the children happy and fed.

 

But when the money was gone, they had nothing again. He wondered whether maybe there was another coin in the wall, one that he hadn’t seen the first time. So, he went back down the steps into the cold and the dark, and sure enough, there in the wall was another coin – almost as though it had been pushed through a crack from the other side. Holding it in his palm made his hand feel even colder and number than before. But the house was bare, and the children were hungry, so he took it – another month’s wages – and it bought milk and bread and meat and coal. Only this time, the milk it bought went sour in the pan, and the meat maggoted in the cupboard. Even the coal burned without heat, damp and chill as a graveyard mist. As the month passed his children began to look grey and drawn, and his wife sallow and sunken eyed.

And at the end of the month the money was all gone, and there was no milk or bread or meat or coal, but his wife and his children were ill, he could see it all too well, only he had no money for a doctor. Not unless there was another coin, one that he’d missed the previous times. So, down he went into the cellar again, and there pushed through the crack in the wall was a single, bright, silver coin.

But the doctor just couldn’t make the children or the wife better. He couldn’t understand it. The medicine the curate bought only seemed to make them worse, and one by one they died; the wife first, then the children until there was only one little daughter left who clung onto life like a candle guttering in the dark, but then even she was gone, and the curate was left all alone.

By all accounts he was a changed man. Nothing he touched afterwards ever went well for him. He grew dark and sullen. Another curate had to be found to replace him, though the bishop said it was an act of charity to let him live on in the house. People in the village kept a distance from him, even the church cat would avoid him. They said that he was bad luck. Yet, he was better off than most and no-one could understand why. The talk was that must have had a rich brother or relative who took care of him – sent him money – because every month he would buy his food and whatever else he needed with a single, bright, silver coin which he laid down on the counter with a hand that grew steadily more numb and withered with each of the passing years.

Now, that story may or may not be true, who am I to say, but the people who live in the house now found a strange thing when they cleared out the cellar. They found a single silver coin in a crack in the cellar wall. I’ve seen it. They keep it under a glass on their mantle piece. And do you know what? They just can’t bring themselves to spend it.

Jeremy de Quidt

THE FEATHERED MAN will be published on November 1st 2012.

The Feathered Man

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