How to spend a penny

We can destroy only as creators!

Friedrich Nietzsche

On a morning train from Cambridge to London a woman looks up from her paperback offering me a smile as I sit opposite her. I take out my laptop to begin writing a piece about art in the consulting room.

An elderly couple join us. Before sitting down the man picks a penny up from the floor, places it on the table and declares, ‘Look dear, good fortune; I’ll be lucky all day.’

‘Ooh, don’t spend it all at once!’ is his companion’s scripted reply. 

Though he had directed the comment to his companion, he was also addressing the other woman and I. It seemed like a ritualised interaction, drawing us into a performative intimacy peculiar to strangers sharing confined space on a train.

We duly return their smiles. It would be ungenerous not joining in with their warm banal exchange. They have, after all, tried to establish civility between strangers pushed together around a small table.

Over the ensuing minutes it appears this might be how they relate to each other all the time. It was as though they wanted an audience. Did they expect audience participation all the way to London? I felt like a stooge. It was like being an extra on a film set; I wasn’t really working on my laptop, I only appeared to be.

I tried getting back to writing with no success. Each time I picked up the thread, one of the couple spoke as though addressing us all; their words slicing through my thought like a hot knife through warm butter. The confined space I sat in was much less restrictive than the contrived conviviality I was caught up in. I had to escape. 

I was at an impasse; the carriage was busy and there were no other seats available, I could not write, and I did not want to join in. So as the Zen koan says, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it,’ and so I took it.

I noticed my eyes dart back to the penny. A playful voice in my head said, ‘Pick it up; put it in your pocket.’ A flash of excitement – thoughts rushed in and the moment was gone. A silent voice rebukes, ‘Why didn’t you pick it up?’ 

The subversiveness of the creative act would now feel contrived; this is a familiar double-bind. My second thoughts want to know why I would pick it up, their intrusiveness robbing me of any spontaneity.

I had missed my chance.

***

As the journey went on the man became engrossed in his crossword, while his companion and the lone woman settled into their books. The now neglected penny had been spent as a cheap catalyst for social lubrication. And yet it has somehow become a talisman for my stuck creativity. I can tell I am not yet done with it.

A few minutes from King’s Cross the man looks up from his paper and says, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t finish it.’

‘That’s not like you.’ His companion’s tone sounds consoling. ‘Maybe it’s a particularly difficult one today?’

Immediately a voice from a dark corner of my mind blurts out, ‘Perhaps it’s early-onset!’

I quickly scan the couple, ‘Phew, I didn’t say that out loud.’ A rush of energy rises up into my chest; the unspoken thought has mobilised me and my eyes dart back to the coin. I see my hand reach out, pick up the penny and pop it into my pocket, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve found; now that’s a sign of good luck!’ I sense three pairs of eyes fixing on me.

The lone traveller’s eyes shoot daggers at me, her cold expression speaks volumes: it reassures me of my transgression. She is perhaps outraged by my behaviour, her discomfort conceivably more to do with her apparent inability to speak. She has unwittingly become a passive bystander, implicated in an act she can neither control nor comprehend.

What is it that endowed things with meaning, value, significance? The creating heart, which desired, and, out of its desire, created. It created joy and woe. It wanted to satiate itself with woe. We must take all the suffering that has been endured by men and animals upon ourselves and affirm it, and possess a goal in which it acquires reason.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The couple look perplexed and smile nervously at one another. My behaviour must seem odd to them. Even if I could explain, I would not; any attempted explanation would only detract from what I did.

Looking at the man I add, ‘So that’s you and me – we’re both lucky today.’ The couple let out a stilted laugh, and still the lone woman remains stony faced. I will not speak to her, unless she addresses me; I do not want to rob her of her experience.

I was now able to write, though not the piece I had intended: I began tapping out this encounter as it unfolded. Having previously felt like an audience member at a pantomime, press-ganged by proximity and expected to know my lines; I was now the writer of something undetermined. There would be no script, no direction, and an open ending.

***

‘Do you want the penny back?’ My question takes me by surprise; I had the welcome sense of not recognising myself. Not only had I freed us from the previous script, it seemed as though I had also broken free of myself. 

I then became aware the man had still not made eye contact with me. I did not want my question to dissipate the charge around the table, although I did wonder how he was feeling. He seemed out of his depth, like an actor who had lost the plot, or like someone trying to ad lib for the first time.

‘No it’s okay,’ he utters, directing his words toward the table where the penny had been.

‘I won’t give it back anyway!’ Again my words take me by surprise; the comment is playful and ridiculous. It reassures me I am not trying to repair something, to do so would belittle us both and it would likely dissipate the charge. It struck me that I had not actually offered to give his coin back; rather I think I wanted to gauge his feeling, or perhaps invite him out to play. 

Mature manhood: that means to rediscover the seriousness one had as a child at play.

Friedrich Nietzsche

It is as though my mind had not yet caught up with the act. The energy I felt was like a wave that swept before me, or perhaps I was swept away with it.

Will and Wave. How eagerly this wave comes hither, as if it were a question of its reaching some thing! How it creeps with frightful haste into the innermost corners of the rocky cliff! It seems that it wants to forestall someone; it seems that something is concealed there that has value, high value.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Although arguably I had just robbed a senior citizen on a train in broad daylight, all of us were the richer for it. With a penny that did not belong to me a multiplication miracle took place, ‘loaves and fishes’; a single coin had multiplied in value and was shared among everyone.

For the rest of the journey I continued writing this blog, the couple quietly reminisced about decimalisation, and the lone woman did not speak.

As we pulled into King’s Cross station I wondered what sort of currency the penny had innocently become. It had done more than just break the constraints of a contrived social interaction. It was the simple alchemy of play that transformed scripted civility into something else entirely, and had, for a brief moment, made a penny priceless.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

2 thoughts on “How to spend a penny

  1. What a lovely captivating story…. what it opens up when there is no interest in being liked and wanting to please….very nietzschian indeed…

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