PENNY-UP by Daniel Fraser

On Tuesday afternoons I would go down to the garages with Sam and Jason to throw coins at a wall. Derek would come and bring a twelve-pack or a slab and we’d stay there past dark. Penny-up can’t be explained, you just have to play it. Like life. The summers were the best. Big sun falling behind the tower block, kids running under the washing lines, screaming and fighting on the open grass, the chimneys and smoke-blackened brick stretching back into the hills, and us with nothing to do but roll.  

“Watch me,” said Derek. We watched him land a soft rebound. It was warm, muggy. The sky was swirls of grey and milk, somewhere far off crept little bits of blue.

“Not bad, not bad,” said Jason. I told Derek he might make the championships. 

We called it rolling but really it’s a flick. You throw just like a decision but here it’s not heads or tails, win or lose—it’s all how well you handle the distance.

I cracked open a beer, listening to air escape. That sound like sea being sucked beneath a stone. Foam curled out above the mouth. I drank. 

“Did you see that horror film?” said Derek, “the one with all the cameras.”

“I did,” I said, “I like anything where people are being watched.”

“Is there a film where everyone is Michael Caine?” said Jason, “I want to see that.” He wiped his hands on his overalls.

“Guy Ritchie doesn’t make those anymore,” said Sam. Sam sliced his flick wide—“fuck it.”

We grew up in a place no one ever never really leaves. None of us broke the mold either, slowly aging into versions of our fathers. Toned down and diluted into something we could bear. Jason and his dad landscaped gardens for rival firms operated by two half-brothers. Derek was a lifeguard with a wrestling ring in his back garden made from broken gym equipment. His Dad looked like Bill Oddie but was some kind of karate grandmaster. Me and Sam worked removals, furniture mostly. Both of our dads went missing, so we knew about taking stuff away. We moved furniture from one place to another, room to room or town to town. With work distance didn’t matter, only care. We were good. Sam could drive a van and I could judge the width of an object just by looking. 

The light was paler now. Some kids were shouting, calling out a cheat. Jason made two in a row and took the pot. 

“Who is this man?” said Jason, looking round, grinning, pointing at himself. An imaginary crowd roared. Derek kicked at rough edges of the tarmac. I cracked open another beer, feeling happy and small, like an insect, embedded safely in some forgotten fabric, left to chew its little square of dust. That’s the good feeling, the penny-up feeling, like one small glory is just enough. Some people don’t get it. I brought Amy down once. She stayed twelve minutes and told me to meet her in the pub. Amy had a hole in her throat from birth and we’d been in love for nearly as long—same street, same school. She ignored the game and shuffled inside her coat. The valley was colder then. Her hair caught up with brown leaves blowing from a sycamore outside the cinema.

“It’s just throwing time away,” she said, sipping bitter. I made a joke about time being money. She looked at her hand and kissed my arm and told me on Tuesdays not to call her before nine.

Derek looked at a pigeon and said the word “sandwich.” He pulled a sandwich from inside his coat. After three bites he got distracted and dropped the sandwich. I imagined the bread growing legs and crawling up the tower into the sky. I’d already sold the script for Spider Sandwich and started shooting by the time someone said, “you’re up.” I flicked a scrape right down the wall; it ended millimeters from the edge. A winner.

“Sick,” said Sam. We bumped cans in celebration. Just then I was king of penny-up, grandmaster, lord of the garages. Sam got a hip flask of whiskey from the van and we swigged it, shoulder to shoulder, the liquid warm and burning in a way that didn’t need to last. 

Sam’s been living with me for four years. Our brick house is an end terrace rented from someone else’s aunt. Three rooms under a low slate roof: separate bedrooms, and a downstairs that’s just one big space. In the garden, old paving stones frame a swimming pool of lawn. “We can grow things here,” Sam said early on, but neither of us ever really did. Most nights, Amy would come round and I’d cook dinner. The first few times Sam told me she was frosty until we discovered Helicopter Police. Amy liked anything with cops that fly. Once we found a channel with repeats and watched it for six hours straight. The police would fly around and shout and look down on people doing criminal things.

“Night vision,” Amy said when everything turned green.

“Oh fuck,” said Sam, “run!” They ran. The cops read out confusing radio signals and codes. It didn’t seem to make much difference, they just flew hard into the night. Sometimes the camera was black and white, sometimes it was red.

“Heat sensors,” said Amy, “they’re done for.” She dipped a chip in mayonnaise and shuffled forward in her seat. Everyone cheered when the criminals got away.

It was close to sunset. Clouds were glowing low behind the empty mills and scattered clumps of wood. 

“I want to meet someone,” said Derek, “a girlfriend.”

“You need to be more romantic,” said Sam, he flipped a coin and caught it, then wrote poetry on the air. He picked imaginary roses and gave the wrapped bouquet to Jason.

“I’m romantic,” said Derek. Derek opened a can, a puff of lager fizz hissed into his face. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth. Derek kicked off the next round, betting high and almost making it. Sam took it in the end, on the last roll. Derek smiled and shivered and leaned against a garage door, the metal bending inward, before popping out without a dent. Even after, when he was injecting, Derek still made Tuesday though his hands were mostly too shaky to win by then.

Dark was scrolling through the hills. Derek looked at his watch, his neck woozy and soft. He put his hand in his pocket and brought out a new roll of coins. 

“No more for me,” I said, “I’m quitting while I’m ahead.” Derek looked away toward the wall. Sam drank up and burped and crushed the empty can into his hand.

“Ready to go?” he said.

“Yeah,” I told him. We hugged Jason and Derek in turn.

“Got a full house in the morning,” said Sam, turning. I nodded and followed on behind. We got to the van door, and I heard Derek shouting, “Practice round, practice round!” We drove home, stopping to pick up frozen bags of fish fingers and nuggets, leaving Jason and Derek in the thickened moonlight, Jason shouting over the garages, “Come on then, just us two now.”

I called Amy. She picked up and told me about her day. “Nuggets,” I said.

Police Helicopters,” she said. Behind me, Sam said, “You know it,” and started making siren sounds. A wind ruffled through the van, we hung our mouths out of the window like dogs. I smoked while Sam drove. The van climbed above the factories and the old estate. Summer fog came and covered up the stars. The rest of the week stretched out ahead of us. It didn’t matter. Just then nothing was big and frightening: the world was just a web of tiny movements, round lumps shifting, bumping into things, moving closer or further away.


Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His poetry and prose have featured in: LA Review of Books, Aeon, Acumen,  The London Magazine, Anthropocene Poetry, and X-R-A-Y, among others. His poems and short fiction have both won prizes in The London Magazine annual competitions. His debut poetry pamphlet will be published by ignitionpress in Autumn 2020. Twitter @oubliette_mag.  Web http://danieljamesfraserwordpress.com/

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

Read Next: SEVEN DROPS OF SALT WATER by Ariel Kusby