A Cut-Purse Rethinks His Ways
by Kate Heartfield
PINCH LEANS OVER the water at twilight. The stone of London Bridge presses cold against his thighs, nothing like the soft, warm brush of William’s fingers. One last thought of his lover, as fleeting as the rush of white water between the arches of the bridge. He’ll replace that thought with something new. A new wish, bought with old coin.
Pinch closes his eyes. In his ears, voices and cartwheels and horses. On his cheeks, mist that reeks of centuries. He grips the bent sixpence, his thumb fitting perfectly into its hollow.
The shape of the wish comes almost unbidden, and with a flush: Pinch wishes to find love. Transporting, difficult, undeniable love. He’d thought perhaps, William—but William only wanted Pinch as one more wheel in the machine that is William’s life. And what machine-maker wants a wheel with unpredictable habits? William will not miss him; William will be better off without him.
Pinch opens his fingers and opens his eyes. The sixpence catches a piece of light from the setting sun, or perhaps from the lanterns that hang over the doors of the shops that line London Bridge. The coin glints, tumbles, vanishes into the spume. He looks out over the greenish water, at the sails slouching on it here and there.
“And what was that?” his friend Shaver asks, leaning over the edge beside him. “You’re not throwing the king’s pictures into the ditch, God help us?”
“Bah, it was a crooked six-pence, and likely a bad one at that,” Pinch answers. “William gave it to me.”
“Most assuredly a bad one, then,” Shaver says. “I can’t see our man William wasting a good sixpence on a love token.”
Shaver puts his big hand on William’s shoulder, kindly. “You’ll forget him by Saturday, Pinch. Shall we see if we can find you some company in Covent Garden?”
Pinch shakes his head. “I don’t want company. Let’s find some gulls. Night’s coming on.”
They wander over to the west side of the bridge, where they’ll be walking counter to most of its traffic. As they pass into the tunnel beneath the bulbous mass of Nonsuch House, Pinch ignores the scowls of the people who elbow their way past him. He walks patiently, placidly, until he sees a bit of yellow satin peeking between a brown bodice and skirt.
Then he lets his gaze go up to the face, and finds it wrinkled and angry. A bonnet in an old-fashioned style, trimmed with far too much lace of good quality.
Pinch’s knife snicks through the ribbon as his thumb and forefinger grasp one end and pull. The pocket comes loose, comes out, and he has stuffed it up his sleeve before anyone is the wiser. Or so he thinks. He is a few paces beyond the old woman when he hears a shriek, and he runs, pushing people out of his way, rounding a carriage, the word thief echoing through the tunnel. He runs until he is over the bridge and into an alley, and by the time Shaver catches up to him, huffing and sweating, Pinch is laughing.
This is how he is meant to live, he thinks. From one moment to the next, no one knows where Pinch will be, least of all Pinch himself. He’s bobbing on the waves of London life, and it’s a joy.
* * *
IN HIS ROOM, later, Pinch stares at the eight objects on his floor. He glowers at the one that doesn’t belong.
The yellow-embroidered linen pocket is empty, set to one side. Its contents stretch across the old rug on his floor: a little glass scent bottle, and a silver nutmeg-grater. (The lady must like punch at parties). A silver thimble. A needle case, a shilling, a key.
And a folding knife, its rough wooden handle dark with use. A wicked knife. Not the sort of knife a lady of advanced age and class might carry.
It’s the twin of a knife Pinch used to own, down to that scratch on the handle, down to its heft in his hand.
He lost it in an upstairs room of the molly-house where he met William. What was it, two years ago? Three. William was undressing him in some haste. The knife fell out of Pinch’s pocket and behind the bedframe, which was nailed to the floor so they couldn’t get the knife, and Mistress Oakshott would not countenance dismantling it. So that was that.
And yet, here is a knife that looks just like it.
Pinch rubs his nose to drive away the scent of rosewater and nutmeg.
* * *
HE BRINGS HIS haul to Fanny in the morning, at the sign of the Oak. She lines up what he gave her: the thimble, the needle-case, the nutmeg-grater, the bottle, the pocket itself. He kept the key because he always keeps keys; it seems bad luck to give them away. He gave the shilling to his landlady, and none too soon. He kept the knife because—because.
Fanny swishes her mouth from side to side, considering. “I’ll give you one and sixpence for the lot.”
“Bah, Fanny, the grater alone is worth more in silver.”
“T’isn’t, and you know it. And why are you bothering with pockets, still? I thought you were working with William, on his business.”
His business. Pinch had known William by reputation before he met him: the shadowy figure at the head of London’s biggest coining network. Half the bad money in the city came from William’s people, or so it was said. If William had ever struck a coin himself, it was long in the past. He spent his days in coffeehouses, giving bribes and taking orders, and who knows what else.
If Pinch had wanted to go into business, he would have stayed in Shropshire and worked at his father’s public house. He would have closed his eyes at the end of the day as if they were weighed by pennies, and he would have woken in the morning like a man serving a sentence. No. Pinch is his own man in London, and will not be anyone else’s.
When the day came that William asked Pinch to collect a broken mould from a woman in Southwark, asked it without even looking up from newspaper, Pinch said no. And then William did look up, and Pinch looked into his wide eyes and lied, as lightly as he could with his blood in his cheeks. He said that he had found someone new.
“Handsome?” William asked, his face white. Pinch could hardly bear to look at that face, as livid and immovable as stone. He let his eyes glaze and held hard to a vision of the future, a vision in which Pinch was trapped in someone else’s idea of what he ought to do with his days and nights.
“Handsome like a god,” Pinch answered. “I’m sorry for it, William. I’m not one to—”
“Go then,” William said, sharply, and that was it. It was ended.
And now Fanny wants to know whether Pinch is in William’s business. It is no business of hers, or anyone else’s. Pinch tells her so, and takes the one and sixpence, and walks away.
* * *
AT NIGHT IN Hyde Park, Pinch jostles a man in a brocade coat. “Your pardon, sir,” he mutters, and stumbles around the corner.
When he’s back in his room alone, Pinch examines what he culled from the man’s pocket. Something heavy, wrapped in a handkerchief. A gold snuff-box. French, by the look of it. A good night’s earnings, this.
He begins to wrap the snuff-box up again and sees the pattern printed on the handkerchief: a map of London. How familiar the curly lettering, the washes of blue and yellow.
Pinch once owned a handkerchief just like this one.
He doesn’t know when or where he lost it. He got out of the habit of consulting it while he was with William, because William knew every alley and lane of the city by heart.
William’s remarkable brain was a desk of pigeon-holes, his thoughts tied up with red ribbon. Well-ordered. The maps in his mind kept him safe, he said. “I’ve not lived to thirty by luck alone,” he told Pinch once, his tone despite the fact that Pinch was only a year younger, and luck had served him well enough. William spread his coining operations around the city, and never visited any of them in person. He knew where the Watch would be, at what times, and he met with his coiners in a pattern of times and places only he fully understood.
How dull it would have been, to stay with him.
He goes home to Moor Lane and buys a tuppence-worth of gin for himself, and the same each for Shaver, Mag and Bess, and they all toast His Majesty’s health until the lamps go out.
* * *
ORDINARILY, PINCH DOESN’T watch the ground, as he walks. He keeps his eyes at hip-height, looking for pockets or purses. Only then does he look at faces. There is no profit to be had in looking at feet.
But the next morning is a rainy one and he happens to trip on an uneven stone in Fore Street, and comes crashing down into a puddle of foul-smelling muck. The puddle contains two things: a battered shoe (which makes him wonder, as he always does, who could lose a shoe and keep walking), and a silver coin, wedged into the cobblestones.
He pulls it out, and sees that it’s bent.
Bent in just the same way as the coin William once gave him as a love token.
What’s more, it bears precisely the same rough inscription, the word “forever” scratched in the space between Queen Anne’s pointy nose and the letters of her name. The queen’s been dead for two years. Nothing is forever.
Pinch calculates. In the few days since Pinch dropped the coin into the Thames, it could have come to shore. A mudlark no doubt found it, brought it here, dropped it. It hardly needs an explanation.
“Ah, God help me,” Pinch groans, rising to his feet, the crooked sixpence in hand. He holds it up and says to no one in particular, “Enough. Enough!”
* * *
WILLIAM IS STILL a man of regular habits, it seems. Pinch finds him at Mills’ Coffeehouse in the morning, reading the London Gazette.
Pinch sits opposite him. They both glance to see if anyone’s in earshot, from long habit. This is not a safe place for men to show they are lovers. But of course, they aren’t lovers, not any more.
“I’m glad to see you, Pinch,” says William, letting the newspaper drop.
“Are you?” Pinch asks, hopefully.
“I am. Even if you do look as if you’re in trouble.”
“I’m not,” says Pinch, defensively. “Well, I am. Troubled. I keep finding things I have lost, in other people’s pockets and purses.”
William frowns. “You mean someone is stealing from you?”
“I could hardly blame my stars if they were, but no. I think—”
I made a wish on the Thames, he wants to say. And I can’t help wondering whether I brought some strange consequence upon myself. I suspect the river that flows through this city knows all our hearts’ desires. I think it is leading me back to you.
But he can’t bring himself to say any of that aloud, here and now, to William. So he says, “I’m sure it is a mere coincidence.”
William’s brows knit with concern. “You look as if it’s given you a shock.”
“It has,” says Pinch, and laughs nervously. “It’s given me hope. Hope that things lost once might not be lost forever. Hope is a dangerous thing, for men like me.”
The concern softens and shifts to caution, to the face William wears when he’s protecting himself. “You’ve always liked danger, Pinch, as I recall.”
“Not as much as I liked you.”
And there, a twitch at the corner of the mouth. How Pinch has missed that mouth!
“I thought there was someone—”
Pinch shakes his head, vigorously. “I won’t be... reliable, William. Not in the way you need. I won’t keep a ledger or regular hours, and my friends are ridiculous, and I have no interest in working for you.”
“Working for me?” William is shocked into speaking aloud, and then he remembers himself and drops his voice and his gaze, addressing the list of ship arrivals in the Gazette. “I have never wanted you to be anything but yourself. I’ve given you cause to think otherwise, haven’t I? I can be an ass, I know. I know it. You are happier without me—”
“I thought I would be,” Pinch says, his voice thick.
William coughs. He looks up at the coffee shop, at the bustle of men and a few women, arguing, laughing, frowning. Pinch looks too, and then looks back at the man he loves. He knows he will find no more of the things he once lost. All that matters is here.
And then Pinch laughs, startling William back into looking straight at him with those somber eyes the same green as the Thames.
“I’m happy now,” Pinch says. “I’m happy here, with you. Drink your coffee, William, and read the Gazette, and just let me sit and look at you, will you? If I’m not too much bother to you.”
At that, William’s mouth curls. He imperceptibly moves the newspaper over to cover his right arm, and under the newspaper, his fingers curl around Pinch’s hand, around the bent sixpence within.
Kate Heartfield’s next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, a historical fantasy set in 18th century London, is coming from ChiZine Publications in 2020. She is the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne time travel novellas (Tor.com Publishing 2018/2019). She also writes interactive fiction, including The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games in 2018. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Nebula, Locus, Aurora and Crawford awards. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.
© 2019 Kate Heartfield