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Two Shillings

I’ve always felt that Americans are fair game. So many of them have come into my pub over the years that I’ve got the rigmarole down pat and gently teasing them never fails to amuse me. They come here from the air base on the far side of the village. During the war there was an almost constant growl of engines from there and the ground was always shaking as the bombers rumbled into the sky to go and pound German towns and cities into rubble. But the war had been over for seven years when Hank first came in to my pub and in to my life, and the air base was a lot quieter than it had been. I was always a bit surprised that the Americans kept it going after the war ended, but they did, and every so often new people would arrive and old ones would go home at the end of their tour of duty. I’ve no idea what they did out at the base. Village rumour insisted that it was a place for them to keep the nuclear bombs that they seemed ever so keen to drop on Russia, but I never knew how true that rumour was. Whenever I asked the Americans about it, they went all coy and clammed up. But outside of that I always found them very friendly and easy going. By and large, I enjoyed their company, but I never could resist pulling their legs.

So there I was, one bright spring lunchtime in 1952, standing behind the bar and thinking of nothing in particular when a man I’d never seen before came in and gave me a big, beaming American smile. His uniform was crisp, clean and smart. Clearly he was part of a new intake at the base. He took off his cap and put it under his arm, then he said, “Can I have a beer, please?”

“Of course you can,” I said and I pulled him a pint of the very best bitter. This too is part of the joke. Americans have generally never seen beer served in pint glasses before and they are always astonished at the sheer volume of liquid they are presented with. They’ve also usually never tasted British bitter before either and the flavour always takes them by surprise. Most of them don’t like it. “Are you from the air base?” I asked, making conversation.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “My name’s Hank. I just flew in yesterday but I don’t officially become part of the base personnel until tomorrow. So today I’ve got a free day. I thought I’d take a look around, see what’s what and where’s where.”

“A very good idea,” I said, putting his pint down in front of him. “Would you like to order some food? We’ve got a very nice ploughman’s lunch.”

“Yes, please,” he said. “What’s a ploughman’s lunch if you don’t mind my asking?”

“It’s a hearty meal of bread and butter, cheese and pickled onions,” I said, “and together with the beer it will cost you three and fourpence ha’penny.” Hank suddenly got a deer-frozen-in-the-headlights look on his face, which made me smile inside though I didn’t let it show on my face. That would be rude.

“Three and fourpence ha’penny,” he muttered. He put his hand in his pocket and brought it out clutching a handful of change which he spread out on the bar and poked at helplessly. “How do I do that?” he asked.

“This is a florin,” I explained, sliding a silver coin out of the pile. “It’s worth two shillings. This smaller coin is a shilling. If we add it to the florin, we have three shillings. Now all we need is another fourpence ha’penny – four and a half pennies. This twelve-sided gold-coloured coin is a thruppenny bit. It’s worth three pennies. These big brown things are pennies. If we take two of them together with the thruppenny bit we’ve got five pennies.” I took the coins I’d selected over to the till. “You’ve given me three shillings and five pennies,” I said. “That’s three and fivepence, so you get a ha’penny change. A ha’penny is half a penny.” I handed him two farthings. “These are farthings,” I said. “A farthing is a quarter of a penny so two of them makes a ha’penny.”

He took the coins, looking bewildered. Then he took a sip of beer and pulled a face. I pretended not to notice. “Why do you have such strange money?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.”

“It’s really very simple,” I said, with my tongue firmly in my cheek. “There are twelve pennies in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound. That’s all you need to know. We find it very easy to work with. And it’s absolutely invaluable for telling the time when you use a twenty-four hour clock.”

“Huh?” asked Hank.

“Suppose someone tells you to meet them at 1600 hours,” I explained. “Pretend that 1600 hours is actually 16 pennies. Because there are twelve pennies in a shilling, 16 pennies is one shilling and four pennies, one and fourpence. Disregard the shillings and you are left with fourpence which corresponds to four o’clock. So 1600 hours is really just another way of saying four o’clock. See? Now you know how it works, you’ll never be late again for any of your meetings. It’s all amazingly straightforward!”

“You gotta be kidding me,” said Hank, shaking his head. He took a long gulp of beer. By now he was so confused that he didn’t notice the taste of it any more.

I just smiled and shrugged and let him draw his own conclusions then I went into the back and returned with his ploughman’s. “Here you are,” I said. “Get that down you. You’ll feel a lot better afterwards.”

Hank munched contentedly for a while. When he’d finished eating, he pushed his plate away with a happy sigh. “That was good,” he said. “I’ll have to come and eat here again.” He finished his pint of bitter and screwed up his face again. “I’m even starting to get used to the taste of your beer,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, genuinely pleased by the compliment.

Hank took all his loose change out of his pocket and spread it out on the bar again. He examined a small silver coin. “This says sixpence on it,” he said, “so I’m guessing it’s worth six pennies. That’s half a shilling, right?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“But this big silver one has got me puzzled,” he said. “It says it’s half a crown. What does that mean?”

“Half a crown is two shillings and sixpence,” I said. “So it’s worth just a little bit more than the florin which is why it’s just a little big bigger.”

“A florin is two shillings and half a crown is two shillings and sixpence,” mused Hank. “That makes sense. But if this is half a crown, what’s a whole crown?”

“A crown is two half crowns,” I said. “That’s twice two and sixpence which makes five shillings. The crown is legal tender but you’ll never have a crown coin to spend. Crowns are only minted for special occasions. They’ll be minting one to commemorate the coronation of the new Queen next year. You’ll only ever see a crown in a special display case. In theory you could take it out of its case and spend it as if it was a five shilling piece but you’d be stupid to try. Because crowns are so special and so rare they are actually worth quite a lot more than their face value.”

I decided it was time to add a little more confusion to the conversation. I love it when my audience’s eyes glaze over and it seemed to me that so far Hank was coping far too well with all these new ideas. He wasn’t glazing very much at all. I decided to bring out the big guns.

“And then there’s the question of guineas,” I said.

“Guineas?” asked Hank. “What’s a guinea?”

“It’s one pound and one shilling,” I said. “Guinea coins haven’t been minted for a hundred and fifty years or so, but lots of things are still priced in guineas. So guineas don’t actually exist, but you often have to spend them anyway.”

“You English really are weird,” Hank said, shaking his head in bafflement. “What other country in the world would quote prices in coins that nobody possesses, and mint coins that nobody can spend?” His eyes were satisfactorily glazed now and I felt that I’d done my job well. “Thanks for the drink and the food,” he said. He slid a half crown across the bar to me. “Here’s a tip.” He swept the rest of his money back into his pocket.

I slid the half crown back to him. “That’s not necessary,” I said. “We don’t give tips in England.”

Hank looked bewildered again but he picked up the coin and put it in his pocket. “Weird,” he said again. “Very, very weird.”

He left to continue exploring the village. I really hoped I would see him again. I’d enjoyed his company. He was one of the nicer Americans I’d met. My hope was amply fulfilled. Over the next few months he came into the pub quite a lot. He brought friends from the base with him and I often heard him giving them lessons in British currency though I’m not sure if any of them understood what he was talking about. I’ll swear that once I even heard him say, “Come on you guys, we need to pack up and leave. We’re due back on duty at one and tuppence ha’penny!”

His tour of duty lasted for about a year and during that time we became quite good friends. He seemed to spend all his free time in my pub and we had many long conversations about this and that. He drank a lot of beer.

But all good things come to an end and one day he told me that he’d be going back home to America at the end of the week. “That’s a shame,” I said. “I’ll really miss you.” It was a rare moment of very non-British emotion.

“No problem,” he said. “Here’s my address in the States. We can write to each other.” He scribbled an address on a piece of paper and handed it across the bar to me. Then he left and I didn’t see him again for twenty years...

* * * *

I think we both started our letter writing with good intentions but America is a long way away from England and in those days letters took a very long time to get delivered so within a couple of years our correspondence had dwindled to a trickle and eventually it died away completely. But out of sight is not necessarily out of mind and I often wondered what had happened to Hank as the years passed slowly by.

And then one day, when I’d pretty much forgotten all about him, the door of the pub slammed open and in walked Hank. “Spend three and fourpence,” he announced loudly and dramatically, “I’m going to a dance!”

“Hank,” I said, genuinely astonished, “what are you doing here? And you got it wrong. It’s supposed to be, send reinforcements, I’m going to advance.”

“Only if the army generals don’t play Chinese Whispers,” he said. “If they do play Chinese Whispers then I got it right. I’ve always thought it was a very appropriate saying for England and the English.

"I’ve brought the family for a vacation,” he went on. “I want to show them all the places I was stationed when I was in the forces. I thought I'd start here where I spent my first ever three and fourpence.”

“Actually it was three and fourpence ha'penny ,” I reminded him drily. “But I don't suppose it matters. How about you start your holiday by having a drink?” I pulled him a pint of best bitter and he sipped it with every appearance of satisfaction.

“Ah,” he said, “I really missed that taste. You can’t get beer like this at home. How much do I owe you?”

“It’s on the house,” I said. “My treat.”

“No,” he insisted, “I really want to pay for it so that I can get back into the habit of using British currency again. How much?”

Reluctantly I said, “Well, if you must. The price has gone up a lot in twenty years. A pint is eighteen pence.”

“Eighteen pence?” he asked. “Why did you say eighteen pence? Why didn’t you just say one and sixpence?” I was amazed at the speed and acuity of his mental arithmetic. Clearly the years had not blunted his brain in the slightest.

“Eighteen pence isn't one and sixpence any more," I said. "The money has gone decimal since you and I last spoke. We don’t have shillings and pence now. We just have new pennies. There’s a hundred new pennies in a pound. We’ve still got a shilling coin but it’s not a shilling these days, it’s five new pennies. And we’ve still got the old florin, the two shilling piece. But now it’s a ten new penny coin. Everything is just pounds and new pennies these days. There’s nothing else.”

“New pennies,” said Hank, thoughtfully. “That’s quite a mouthful to say every time you quote a price.”

“That’s why we don’t really call them pennies,” I explained. “Officially they are known as pence rather than pennies, so as to distinguish them from the old pennies that we used to have. But nobody ever uses the official name either. When I said that the beer I just served you cost eighteen pence I was actually being a little bit pedantic. What I should have said was that it cost eighteen pee.”

Hank burst into delighted laughter. “So you are still playing silly games with your currency,” he said. “Only the British would think of naming their money after a bodily function. If I drink this pint of beer will I have to go to the bathroom eighteen times?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s your bladder. But you are getting on a bit in years and you know what effect that has on a man.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” he said, "since that's all there is these days." He took a huge swallow from his pint. Then he suddenly got serious. “I’m very glad you’ve still got the two shilling coin,” he said. “It means a lot to me.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because when I went back to the States I kept one as a souvenir. I’ve boasted about it to so many people back home that everyone calls me Mr. Florin. I’d hate to think my nickname didn’t work any more.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said.


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