Two-Stroke Toilets

What’s this?” I said, looking down at the change the old woman had put down on the counter between us. There were bills of the wrong size and color, clunky-seeming coins that were too big and too dull. I stirred a finger in the little pile.

She glanced down herself, then put a hand to her mouth.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Duggan. Blame it on age. I forgot. You’re new around here. I—”

I smiled at her. Since Riane and I had moved here to Tarburton-on-the-Moor three or four months ago we’d found that some of the people were prickly and suspicious—“damn’ Yanks”—and others tried to be ingratiating only in hopes of making a buck off us. Or a pound off us, I should say. Old Nettie, who owned the general store but nowadays left the business of actually selling the stuff to her sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, of whom there seemed to be an unlimited and uniformly stocky supply, wasn’t one of the unfriendly ones. From the outset she’d welcomed us, although with the polite reserve of an earlier generation.

“Is it French?” I said, picking up one of the bills. “Ten Shillings,” read the copperplate, dried-blood script.

So the money wasn’t French. I knew enough about the country we’d come to live in, perhaps for the rest of our lives, that I was aware the Brits had once counted their money in pounds, shillings, and pence. What I’d picked up was a ten-bob note, as they’d once said. I’d never seen one before. It looked a bit like a ten-pound note that someone had shrunk in the laundry. The ten-bob note had disappeared when the currency went decimal—back in the 1970s, I guessed. Where once there’d been twenty shillings to the pound and twelve pennies to the shilling, now there were a hundred new pence to the pound… and the pound was a coin, not a green paper bill like the next one I picked up.

“These are amazing,” I said, studying it closely. “Are they still legal tender?”

“It’s a mistake, Mr. Duggan,” Nettie said, trying to brush the money away from me with her hand. “A misunderstanding. Just some souvenirs of the past I keep in the cash register.”

It was obvious the explanation was a lie. Nettie’s face was as wrinkled and dark as a fig, and it didn’t keep secrets well. But of course I couldn’t tell her I knew she was lying to me. I pushed the coins and bills towards her—reluctantly, though, because they interested me.

“They look as if they should be in a museum,” I said. “That’s a half-crown, isn’t it?”

Half a crown. Two shillings and sixpence. Twelve and a half pence in modern currency, except that the half-penny (not to be confused with the old ha’penny coin, which was half an old penny) had been abandoned a while ago. I couldn’t help thinking the Brits could have made life easier for everyone if they’d called their new coins cents, like other countries did. A hundred cents to the pound. Then there’d be no confusion over pennies and pence.

“Some people still like the old money.” Nettie was visibly relaxing a little. It was a Monday morning and there was no one else in the shop except her and me and the smell of shadows. “Money was worth more, back then.”

I imagined it had been. In the days when there had been ten-bob notes, ten bob was worth something. Now they were asking you to put the equivalent, a fifty-pence piece, into parking meters.

Nettie still hadn’t put the heap of old money away. She’d paused, her hand resting on it, and seemed to be having an internal conversation with herself.

“You and Mrs. Duggan,” she said aloud at last, “you’re not planning to be just fly-by-nights, are you? You’ve come to Tarburton to live, haven’t you, Mr. Duggan?”

“For as long as you’ll have us,” I said, grinning. “We like it here. If we ever have kids, this is where we want them to grow up.”

She drew her head back, looking at me through narrowed gray eyes. “It’s about time you hurried up with the little ones, you two. That wife of yours isn’t getting any younger.”

“Don’t let her hear you say that.”

Nettie put her hand on mine. “Can I trust you?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Then let me tell you what everyone else around here knows. It’s not something I ever do myself, you understand, but…”

Riane’s people had originally come from this part of the world, a couple of generations back, and she’s always talked of Devon and Dartmoor with that curious form of nostalgia people show for places they’ve never in fact been to but with which they feel a sort of inherited familiarity. When we’d married eight years ago we’d planned to honeymoon here—“rediscover my roots,” as Riane put it—but around that time ABC had unexpectedly not renewed Alphonse and Claude for a fifth season (two strongly accented Frenchmen living together in NYC and trying hilariously to pull girls when everybody assumes they’re gay), and so I was suddenly out of a job. By the time my agent had sold the pilot of Birgit and Piotr (a German lesbian and a gay Russian man, both strongly accented, living in Chicago and trying hilariously to pull appropriate partners when everyone assumes they’re an item), we’d had a honeymoon in Wyoming and liked it. Besides, as Riane pointed out to friends when in her cups, we’d only left the trailer twice.

Birgit and Piotr had enjoyed a better run than it deserved. By the time it wound down, to everyone’s great relief, I was writing a children’s show about a family of vampires—you’ve probably not seen

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