Dealers at the Sydney Coin Expo offer gold and silver treasures to satisfy the pirate lust in any buyer, and no-one asks how they came by the booty. But this year, Jackson will be making enquiries.
“Jackson, when will I see you? It’s been so long!”
Only six months! And it would be six months more if I could stretch it that far. “Can’t do it today. There’s this thing I have to go to.”
“Okay.” Mum sighed. “I bought a leg of lamb, in case.”
And I’m vegetarian.
“Gotta go. Call you later, Mum.”
The ‘thing’ I had on was the All that Glitters festival, Australia’s second largest coin Expo, held in Sydney’s Darling Harbour Centre.
Thousands of coin collectors – or numismatists – came to trawl the tables of gold, silver and bronze coins and listen to lectures on the secrets of our pocket change. Treasure hunters all, myself included. Though I was looking for just one particular coin, from a not-so particular dealer.
A quick glance around confirmed the usual suspects in attendance. The older die-hard collectors, quirkily dressed, greeting each other like old friends – and rivals. The get-rich-quick hopefuls in well-made suits, Google running hot in their hands, seeking the deal of a lifetime. And the “tourists” gawping at the booty, with no clue about its history, mythology or value. They drifted from table to table, eyes round as 20c pieces, gold and silver flickering in dark pupils.
How the dealers came by the glittering merchandise, no one knew. Or cared to ask. Just as long as some of it ended up in our pockets.
Roasted coffee and fried burgers scented the air. With a bitter tang beneath. Metallic, like blood.
“Jackson!” Evie’s sandy blonde head bobbed through the crowd. “Good to see you here. Looking for anything in particular today?”
“Might be,” I grinned. “But if I told you what, I’d have to kill you.”
She chuckled politely, which was more than the joke deserved. Evie, 30s, the festival PR manager and a collector herself. Sparky, eager to please, with a teasing smile, she was a treasure herself.
“Is that for me?” She reached playfully for the takeaway coffee I held.
“Sorry,” I pulled back. “It’s a bribe.”
She nodded, intrigued. “Well, if I can help at all. If you’re need anything at all …?”
Does she mean more than just coins? “I’ll come to you,” I said.
“Promises, promises,” She grinned and headed back into the fray.
Oo, very nice. Remember the mission!
I squeezed past a crowd at Newlands stall, admiring the Spanish gold – Pieces of Eight and Doubloons – the show’s superstars. A couple had dressed up as Jack Sparrow. Pirate loot never lost its shine.
And then I saw her – Maisie, 60s, joking with a customer. When she spotted me, her smile faded like the last firework on New Year’s Eve.
“Maisie!” I shouted. “Cappuccino with five sugars, for you.” I plonked it down in front of her.
“Thanks.” The Coin Queen snatched the coffee. “But, I only take four and a half now. I’m sweet enough.”
“And to save your breath,” she said, “I’m not selling it.”
The ‘it’ she referred to was right there under glass. A gold coin, part of a commemorative set for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, of a swimmer. But on this coin, the water lines didn’t end at the neck, they covered the athlete’s face. It was a flaw, a minting error. In coins, though, unlike in life, blemishes increased their desirability.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” I said. On the previous three occasions.
“You mean you had your foot in your mouth and I had mine on your butt, when you accused me of stealing?” The woman’s stare was as cold and hard as metal.
“Could we start over?” I asked. “I’d like to buy the coin. I’m happy to pay whatever you think’s fair.”
Maisie raised her eyebrows. “Appreciate the offer, but I’m keepin’ it. For sentimental reasons. My dead husband gave it to me, you see. It ain’t perfect, but neither was he.”
Maisie slurped the drink loudly, then turned to another customer, dismissing me.
Walk away! Don’t say anything you’ll regret!
My legs carried me to a stall a few rows along. I scanned the merchandise, without seeing it. Maisie was keeping the coin for sentimental reasons? The woman was about as sentimental as Ma Baker. And as honest.
By rights, that coin was mine. And one way or another, I’d have it before the day was done.
“How’d it go?” Evie was back, with her own cappuccino. “Not giving Maisie grief, I hope?”
“I was a complete gentleman.” I sighed. Just.
“Everyone loves Maisie. What is it between you two?”
“Can I have a sip of that?” I reached for her cup.
She pulled it away. “Get your own.”
This was a tough side of Evie I’d never seen. I like it.
In the café at the side of the hall, I slugged down a double espresso and tried to explain.
“I might have called her a thief, once or twice,” I said.
Evie grimaced. “You used the ‘T’ word?” We didn’t say that around here.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I whipped it out. Don’t forget, you said you’d call later.
“From my mum,” I explained. “We don’t get along.”
Evie sipped her drink, assessing me over the rim of the cup. “If Maisie won’t sell the coin, I know two other dealers with Olympic coins.” Evie scrolled through a list of exhibitors on her phone.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t want any Olympic coin. I want that one. It has … sentimental value.” To borrow Maisie’s phrase.
“Well, if Maisie won’t deal with you, maybe she will with me? As your agent?”
When Evie put her cup down, she had a little froth moustache. Sweet. “Better make you presentable.” I wiped her top lip with my napkin and watched her cheeks turn deep pink.
She had a lovely smile. And a missing tooth I’ve never noticed before. Which is endearing.
“Give her whatever she wants,” I said. “Up to ten thousand.”
But minutes later, Evie was back. “She saw me talking to you. So no dice.”
I spent the day buying some coins for my modest collection. I wouldn’t become a coin freak, like some around here – just like King Midas, thinking of nothing but gold.
At 5pm, the dealers packed up and headed home.
I watched Maisie wheel her trolley away, the coins secured in locked cases.
Time to take things to the next level.
“Jackson, you’re still here?” Evie seemed pleased. “Any luck with Maisie?”
I shook my head and showed her some coins I’d bought which included another Olympics swimmer –standard mint variety – and some gold two-dollars coins 1988, engraved with the artist’s initials.
She whistled. “Must have set you back a bit?”
“Do you think Maisie would accept them as a trade?”
“She’d be up on the deal,” Evie said. “But, will she go for it?”
Should I tell her? Bring her in?
“She won’t have a choice,” I said. “I have her address and I’m going to slip in quietly and swap my coin with these.”
“What?” Evie was horrified. “You’re gonna break into her house?”
“I can only do it, if you keep her busy at the front door.”
“I don’t know, Jackson.”
“No-one will get hurt. Maisie will make a tidy profit on the deal. And I’ll take you out for dinner to thank you.”
She licked her lips, somewhat tempted by the last.
“I need a reason,” she said.
I leaned closer. “I’ll just be stealing back what’s mine.”
And so I told her. My mum left us when I was nine, so Dad raised me. Though we didn’t have greens with every meal, he always had my back.
The two of us struggled to connect. Coins gave us something to do together, a common interest. On my 10th birthday, he gave me a set of six Sydney Olympic gold coins, and said they’d be worth something one day. They were my “inheritance”.
“Were they really so valuable?” Evie asked
“No. But the flaw on the swimming coin was worth something.”
During my teen years, I was a typical teen; I didn’t want to be around Dad. When I started a career in finance, I didn’t have much time to see him.
She listened hard, a line of concentration appearing between her brows.
He was drinking a lot. I didn’t have much patience with that. Just before he died, he rang me to say someone had broken into the house and stolen my coin set. He was very upset. It was all he had to give.
“I didn’t care about the value,” I explained. “But that set was special, to us. He died not long after that. That was five years ago. This year, I decided to buy the coins back if I could. As a way of remembering the best parts of dad.”
Evie stroked my shoulder. I put my hand over hers.
“I located five of the six coins. When I asked the dealers how they’d come by them, they mentioned the same source. Maisie.”
Evie pulled her hand away. “Maisie’s no thief.”
“Maybe not. But it seems like she bought stolen goods from the thief. And asked no questions. I can fix this,” I said. “But I need your help?”
At around 7pm, we pulled up outside Maisie’s house – a two-storey place that had seen better days. She’d lived there alone since her husband died the year before, Evie said.
I stayed in the car while Evie knocked on the dealer’s front door. Maisie answered in her dressing gown and the two chatted on the front step. I heard Evie declining an offer of tea or whisky as I slipped into the shadows and around the back of the house.
Moonlight glanced off an old swing set in the yard. A protest of rust as it shifted in the breeze made me shudder. Or was it because the scene seemed eerily familiar?
Like any old playset.
The back door was unlocked – thankfully, I didn’t have to smash anything. I turned the handle slowly and went inside.
On the wall ahead, was a framed embroidery of a koala. Which seemed familiar also. I shook my head. Like many old folk have on their walls.
Creeping along a corridor I turned, almost by instinct, into the second room on the right. And gasped. The old sofa. The battered wardrobes. A painting of African elephants on the wall. I’d seen them before. But how?
Maisie’s coin cases were neatly stacked by the sofa. Ignoring the spooky déjà vu, I burrowed into them and found the flawed gold swimmer, replacing it with the regular minted version, and the two-dollar coins. I snapped the locks shut. The old girl might suspect me, but she’ll never prove anything.
As I turned to leave, I spotted some drawers with fussy gold handles. What the-? I know them. I couldn’t help myself. I opened the first one. And there, on top, lay the wallet folder for my Olympic coin collection. And, no, it wasn’t any coin folder; it was mine. My name and address on the back written in my 10-year-old hand proved that.
“What the Hell?” Stark light flooded the room as Maisie appeared in the doorway, Evie at her shoulder. “I’m calling the police.” She tapped on her phone. “To report both of you.” She glared back at Evie.
I thrust the wallet folder in Maisie’s face. “This is me! This set was stolen from my father’s house. Let’s get the cops here and you can explain to them how it ended up in your drawer.”
“Oh. My. Lord!” Maisie clapped her hands to her cheeks. “You’re little Jackie Montague. Davey’s boy.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And these coins are mine.”
“Emergency services!” a tinny voice answered. Locking eyes with mine, Maisie disconnected. “I’ll get the whisky.”.
Evie and I sank to the sofa. “What’s going on?” she whispered.
“I have no idea.”
But a vague memory stirred.
Maisie splashed golden liquid into three glasses. “Bottoms up!”
I’ve heard her say that before.
We took a hefty slug.
“Someone broke into my father’s house and stole this set,” I began. “Are you going to tell me it wasn’t you?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Bull-shit,” I said. As if saying it strongly enough would make it true. I didn’t know what was coming, but I sensed I wouldn’t like it. Especially not when Maisie’s expression had changed from anger to … pity.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Jacky, but no-one stole those coins. My husband, Dennis, won them off your father in a game of poker.”
A gut punch.
“No way. You’re lying.”
“Your dad suffered like my Dennis. They had the gambling bug. It’s a disease.”
What the-? Dad gambled away my inheritance?
One look at Evie, hand over her mouth in horror, and I knew it was true.
“We’re both victims here, Jacky,” Maisie said.
“My husband won the coins off your father. But if Davey’d had more time, I’m sure he’d have tried to win them back.”
As if that was any consolation. I gulped my drink. It burned my throat on the way down, which felt good. And I realised I had been in this room before. Dad used to leave me here, while he transacted “business” in a separate room.
“How’s your mum?” Maisie asked. “You know, it was her who bought that coin set for you. Sourced it through me. Cara couldn’t cope with your dad’s gambling. She hated leaving you, though. She tried to take the coin set before she left. But thought she’d lost it. I guess your Dad had it somewhere.”
So Mum bought the set and Dad took credit? He was a thief and a gambler?
Evie reached over and touched my arm, but I shook it off and stood up, draining my glass.
“The coin’s yours, Jacky,” Maisie said. “Keep it.”
“I don’t want it anymore.” I tossed it onto the seat next to her.
Maisie picked it up. “I see this a shock to you. To find out your dad wasn’t perfect. That your mum might have had good reason to leave. But we need to face the truth about people we love. And love them, despite that, if we can. That’s why I liked that flawed coin. It reminded me of Dennis. As quickly as I brought money in, he’d gamble it away. He wasn’t perfect, but there was a lot of good in him.”
But all that time, I’ve been angry with Mum. Like a spoilt child. All that time … wasted.
Evie’s eyes had a misty sheen. Or was it seeing them through my eyes?
“It’s not too late to fix this,” she said, as if reading his mind.
“Would you mind if we had dinner another time?” I said. “There’s someone I need to see tonight.”
“Mum, it’s me. Don’t worry about the roast. I’m taking you out.”