A cover for Penny

By Betty Billingham

Penny's heart beat faster at the sound of the key in the door. It was Mark. Somehow she had to tell him, and it had to be tonight. Instinctively, she knew he would never understand. If only there was another way! But there was nothing left to eat and she had spent all her allowance - all in one go, and not on food!

Mark put his briefcase down, lining it up precisely with the desk, pecked her on the cheek and sat down at the head of the dining-room table, rubbing his hands in anticipation before thumbing through the mail, neatly stacked by his place. Meticulous with figures, he insisted in orderliness in his home.

"Only beans on toast?" A worried frown creased his face and he paused to take a second look at her. She flushed under the scrutiny. "Feeling ill are you?"

Penny shook her head and busied herself pouring the tea. "The fried onions add a piquant touch don't you think?" The words were light-hearted but, had Mark been listening, her voice would have betrayed her anxiety.

Nervously she glanced at him, but he was again absorbed in his mail. Penny was glad of the large bundle. In the silence, her mind dwelt on recent events and she marvelled at the ease with which she had got herself into this mess.

* * *

It all began as she was making up her shopping list that morning prior to going out. The bell rang and, much to her surprise, there stood Joe from the stamp club.

"No, we had a wonderful holiday visiting the children" he said in answer to her enquiry. "But I saw something in Melbourne I felt sure you would want." He held out an envelope, protected by a stiff plastic sleeve.

"I don't believe it!" Astonishment mingled with awe as she took it from him. Surprisingly, she dismissed the rubber-stamped words adorning the front, and glanced perfunctorily at the water colour of a native village under waving palms trees. Instead, she quickly turned the cover over to inspect the back. Carefully she studied the circular woodcut on the flap, and then examined the single letter between reversed brackets below it.

"A genuine Karl Lewis!" Impulsively she flung her arms round the startled Joe. "I never dreamed I'd own one of these," she squealed in excitement.

"It was in a little junk shop outside the city" said Joe. "Don't think the guy knew what he had, but I recognised it by all the messages in different languages, saying: 'Delivered by Tin Can Mail'. Just like the ones in your collection." Penny nodded, remembering the interest among members when she had given her talk. "So I took it on spec," Joe was saying. "Felt sure you would want to buy it off me. Hope I did right."

His words had a sobering effect. "How much was it?" Pensively, she waited for his answer. A 'Karl Lewis' did not come cheap!

"Well, that's what made me hesitate" he said slowly, and Penny strove to check her impatience. "The man raved about the pretty picture, but I realised immediately you had nothing like this. When I saw the good condition it was in.... well.. I decided to take the chance. Knew you wouldn't let me down," he finished in a rush.

"How much?" The words escaped through clenched teeth.

"Fifty pounds, on the nail." Anxiously he looked at her. "Is it too much?"

"No Joe," she said, suddenly light headed. "That's just fine, and thanks for thinking of me." Unconcernedly, she handed over her last notes.

"That's a relief!" The money vanished as, with a shrug Joe explained. "See, we spent more than expected, and now the wife's nagging me for money for grub. Hadn't the heart to tell her we had none till pay-day."

Penny shut the door, reflecting that now it was her with the empty larder. It was a good job Mary was due any minute to pay for the bridesmaids dresses she had made.

Looking lovingly at the prize in her hand she let out a whoop of joy, dancing round the dining-room table. She was working on her exhibit when her neighbour arrived.

"Hello Mary, am I glad to see you! Without that money, we won't eat tomorrow!" Penny led the way, still prattling excitedly. "Before we get down to business, let me show you my latest acquisition."

Mary looked uncomfortable and perched tentatively on the very edge of the offered chair.

"It's only the smell of the spray glue" Penny said, mistaking Mary's hesitation.

"Is this for the competition you were talking about?"

"Yes, it's next week. This cover is so unique, it will be the piece de resistance of my exhibit" Penny answered, as she collected up her papers with neat, detailed descriptions, and envelopes mounted with black paper surrounds.

"What's your exhibit about?" Mary asked half-heartedly, but Penny didn't notice her lack of interest and launched enthusiastically into a detailed description.

"You remember! I told you the story some time ago of how the mail was delivered to Niuafo'ou; this little island in the Kingdom of Tonga. It's the tip of a volcano and its sides go steeply down right into the Tongan trench, one of the deepest parts of the Pacific. So ships cannot throw down an anchor and the island has no harbour. Strong currents make it impossible for ships to come close anyway."

"How did the islanders get their mail then?"

"It was sealed into tins and thrown overboard. It all started in 1882." Penny passed over a picture.

"Did the currents bring in the tins?"

"Oh no! The Polynesians swam out to the ships to collect them. Outgoing mail was wrapped in grease-proof paper and tied to a long stick. The ship then lowered a basket over the side."

"Did everybody get their mail that way?"

"Yes. Look, I've got a letter addressed to the Chief of Police."

"Goodness! And it's all covered with words stamped in lots of colours. I can't read some of them."

"That's because they are in dozens of different languages," Penny laughed gaily.

"Is it still going?"

"Unfortunately not. It went on for over a hundred years," Penny replied, nodding at Mary's surprise, "but in 1983 they built an airport."

Penny was about to search once more through her pages, but Mary stayed her hand.

"We'll all hold thumbs for you, I'm sure" she said, "but I really came to say I can't pay you until next week." She looked down at her shoes, suddenly embarrassed at the pregnant silence.

"Look, a week or two more won't make any real difference to you; your husband, with his posh job, can bail you out. My Jim only gets a weekly wage and things went kind of wrong this week, what with Jenny ruining her uniform in a fight, and then Sue loosing her shoes...." Mary shrugged her hands in a hopeless gesture.

Penny shivered in shocked disbelief. She had relied on Mary's promise to pay today.

"Well, I mustn't disturb you" Mary said, rising hurriedly, "you'll want to get on. Don't worry, I'll see myself out and... good luck next week."

* * *

The scrape of Mark's chair catapulted Penny out of her thoughts. No good putting it off, she thought.

"I need to borrow fifty pounds," she said, not stopping to think about tactics or guile. Mark frowned darkly, and she hurried on. "It's just till the end of the month, I'll pay you back."

"Why?" The single word did not auger well and Penny rushed to fetch her prize, convinced it's beauty would plead her cause better than words.

"Not more Tin Can Mail!" Penny quailed, she knew he could not understand her absorption in stamps. Not a collector by nature, he had little patience with what he often referred to as 'a rich man's extravagance'.

"It's a 'Karl Lewis'," she started to say.

"Fifty pounds for this tattered old bit of paper," he expostulated, "this is too much! You're completely irresponsible!"

Penny rushed on to explain Joe's thoughtfulness which made refusal unthinkable, even churlish. "Besides it was a bargain," she said, but Mark wasn't listening. He pushed her roughly away.

"In the morning, I'm taking this to the stamp shop in the High street. You'll just have to make ends meet on whatever he gives me for it," he said, stuffing the cover into his pocket. All her pleading fell on deaf ears.

"It will be a lesson for you" he said, stomping out of the house, leaving her crying on the sofa.

* * *

Harry and Bob waved a greeting from the bar as Mark opened the door of the pub. "Why so glum?"

He slammed the envelope onto the counter, his angry voice loud so that the stranger in the corner could not help but overhear. He raised an eyebrow at the barman, a fellow philatelist, who agreed with a slight nod. Their hearts went out to the unknown collector and the man determined to investigate.

As he came to order another beer, he chanced to bump Mark's arm. Profuse apologies followed, and in the ensuing conversation, introductions were made. Soon the stranger referred to the offending cover.

"Fascinating story, Tin Can Mail, isn't it? Couldn't help it but my ears pricked up at the mention of Karl Lewis. Didn't know he sent covers to Niuafo'ou."

"Who's this Lewis guy?" someone asked.

A Japanese painter," the stranger answered. "He sent covers to many pacific islands in order to get their exotic cancellations, and then sold them to philatelists."

Harry gave a loud guffaw. "Did it make him a fortune?"

"Not really," was the reply. "Might have if he'd had enough time. He made the mistake of continuing during WWII and the Japanese censors couldn't understand someone posting empty envelopes. Decided he must be sending coded messages in his paintings, so they shot him."


"Yes, that's why they're rare, but you can always tell the genuine thing by his numbering and signature in the woodcut."

Mark fished the cover out once more. "Have a look."

Eyebrows rose as the stranger took a magnifying glass out of his pocket, and strode towards a bright light in the corner.

"Yes, this is indeed genuine," he said at last. "Excellent condition too, in spite of having been in your pocket." Mark flushed at the implied criticism.

"What's it worth?" He was in not in a conciliatory mood.

"Worth? Well, that's difficult. A recent auction advertised one in poor condition with a reserve of œ175. This is a good one, should fetch more. However, if it were exhibited in a prize-winning collection, it would appreciate considerably."

"Crikey!" Mark was dumbfounded. "Penny's exhibiting next week." Suddenly her hobby took on new meaning for Mark. His accountant's brain was ever open to investment opportunities.

"Her first is it? With material like this, she should do well." At Mark's absentminded nod he continued. "I would be proud to assist if she needs advice. Stamps bring many rewards."

Mark was reflecting on his taunts and recalled her scrupulous honesty, always earning every penny spent on her hobby. Suddenly ashamed as the tearful face he had left behind flashed up in his mind he decided a conciliatory gesture was called for.

"There's no time like the present and we live just round the corner. She'll be happy to talk to another stamp man and discover her envelope is valuable."

"Undoubtedly" said the stranger, and winked at the barman.

1995 © Betty Billingham