“... Midas, the King with the golden touch, was alone, miserable and starving, his true riches reduced to lifeless, beautiful metal.”
Sadim marked his page and hunched under the duvet. He dreamed of gold.
* * * * * * * * *
Yolanda lifted her head from her hands. There were dark smears on her cheeks where the mascara had run. An icy morning - and no coins for the electric yet again.
‘Mum! Don’t cry.’ Sadim put his skinny arms around her shoulders and she buried her face in her son’s T-shirt. ‘It’ll be OK. We’ll manage somehow. I’ll get a job. Dad’ll be back in a few months and maybe he’ll bring us some money.’
‘Greece is broken, Sadim. You get nothing for digging. The money goes to the local authorities and men with degrees. Dad loves what he does but he might as well be a slave.’ The tears welled again. ‘He’d be better off in a dole queue. And so would we.’
‘I can try the benefits office again Mum, if you like?’
‘My head is spinning from filling in forms. I can’t bear any more.’
Sadim stroked his mother’s prematurely greying hair. Now thirty-six, eighteen years in a mixed marriage had been hard on her. Not all the extended family had been kind to the pretty arts graduate Danial brought home from Uni, and her own parents withdrew all support once she conceived her son. Danial’s mother and sister helped Yolanda through a difficult pregnancy, brought her food parcels, and cared for Sadim while she healed from emergency surgery; but those nine months of sickness and trauma had left her weak, often in pain, so work was impossible. Joyce at the benefits office had done her best, but as Danial’s sporadic archaeology trips meant he was technically in work there were limits to the help she could offer.
Yolanda stopped weeping. Sadim’s slim fingers smoothing her hair had calmed her. She looked better, Sadim thought. As if a little of her youth had been given back. Then he saw it. Under his hand where a lock waved into the nape of her neck the grey had gone. It had gone. His mother’s hair was the soft ash blonde of her wedding pictures, of her graduation day! Startled, he stepped back. Should he say something? No, said his intuition. Let her see for herself. Suppose it didn’t last? He hugged his secret to himself.
* * * * * * * * *
The street gang never let him alone. Every day going to and from school the same half-dozen work-shy skinheads blocked his way till he gave them his lunch money. No more school now, but nothing had changed; they were waiting for him on the corner by the Job Centre.
‘Give us some cigs or we’ll bring the Yardies.’
It wasn’t an empty threat. The drug gangs recruited these hooded youngsters as soon as they were old enough to be useful. You never knew who you were dealing with.
‘Haven’t got any.’ Sadim didn’t smoke, and he knew they knew.
‘Get us some then.’
‘You got money.’
‘Show us then.’
Sadim pulled out a crumpled fiver from his back pocket. ‘Told you. That’s all I got.’
‘Get us ten Players then.’
He suddenly felt a surge of anger overwhelm his fear. ‘Get them yourself.’
The boys were on him. The smelly one had him by the scruff and his mates had grabbed his arms and two were kicking the backs of his legs so he had no choice but to stagger forward into the corner shop and hold the fiver out to Mr. Saeed who hesitated, then took it with a glare at the sniggering youths breaking up his queue. He handed the pack to Sadim; the smelly boy snatched it and ran laughing back toward the estate followed by rest of the crew.
‘When you going to fight back, Sadim?’
‘Maybe one day,’ he mumbled, taking the change and counting the £1.45 into his pocket.
‘I won’t tell your Mum.’
Outside, Sadim took out the coins again and wondered what sort of a lunch he could buy. You couldn’t even get a cup of tea for that. He stroked the pound coin dejectedly; the Queen’s hair shone back at him. Were pounds always that yellow? He looked more closely at the familiar image, at the inscriptions, the date, the milling around the edge. Maybe he had a duff one. There were loads of fakes in circulation. But this was really nice - it shone as if it were new, fresh from the Mint, yet it was nine years old. He had a ridiculous thought: suppose this one - just this one, for some inexplicable reason - was really gold?
A hundred yards from Saeed’s was the local pawnbroker. Manny knew Sadim. Yolanda’s few bits of jewellery and her watch had passed over his counter many times over the past few years. Like Saeed, he was discreet. Danial would never know about his family’s hardship. Whenever he came home with his skimpy earnings and wonderful tales of swords and shards and ancient papyri, of tombs and skeletons, of temples and wars, he would find his wife glowing with welcome, his son smart and respectful, his home clean, bed freshly made, a delicious meal on the table.
‘Hallo, Sadim! Have you something for me today?’
‘I don’t know, Manny! Will you look at this? It’s a pound - but I think it’s gold!’
Manny gave the boy a quizzical look as he reached for his assay kit and scales. Sadim had often watched Manny do this; it fascinated him. He would take the square of fine slate and carefully rub the yellow metal onto the stone so that it left a streak across its surface. Then he would test it with acids; any reaction meant that the metal was not gold. Sadim’s pound left a shimmering smear on the small dark square. One by one Manny applied his acids. Nothing happened. He placed the coin into the assay scale.
‘Sadim, I don’t know how this has happened or where you got this from, but this is heavy! Your pound coin is the highest quality gold. Are there any more? I can certainly help you today. Tonight you will eat.’
The remaining change had spilled onto the counter and Sadim had been fiddling with it all the time Manny was testing the pound. There were two 10p pieces, a 20p, two 2p coins and a 1p piece. At least, there used to be. Manny’s eyes behind his half-specs were like saucers as he looked down at the six gleaming golden coins under Sadim’s fingers.
‘Sadim, I am going to give you what all this extraordinary gold is worth; but first I want you to take one £20 note down to the bank to exchange for petty cash. Ask for as many 2p pieces as they are willing to give you. Bring the coins back here, and above all don’t let those young thugs see what you’re up to.’
‘Don’t ask. Just do it.’
Fifteen minutes later Manny opened the bulging bank bag that Sadim had lugged back up the road. He grasped a handful of coins.
‘All 2p pieces my boy! Well done! Now then - pop your hands in that sack and try to touch every copper. No rush.’
Slowly, carefully, Sadim moved his thin fingers through seven kilos of shifting metal. A strong coppery smell filled the dingy, cluttered shop, then faded. His hands were being crushed by the coins and he drew them away, wincing.
‘Look,’ said Manny.
He slid an empty box against the foot of the counter and tipped the bag.
A thousand gold pieces cascaded over the edge, flashing in the blurred sunlight. Everything shone - the shelves, the walls, the old man’s rheumy eyes.
‘Now, young Sadim,’ he said,’You have been given a priceless gift. Do you remember Midas?’
Sadim nodded, speechless.
‘And do you remember the miserable ending to his tale?’
Tears were welling in the boy’s eyes.
‘I believe that is not meant for you. You are not greedy for money or for power. But others are. Promise me that you will go on your knees tonight and ask the good God to take this gift back again. Meanwhile I shall give you a fair price for what you have brought me.’ He scribbled as he spoke. ‘Put this into a savings account where it will grow and keep your dear family from the breadline. Now go.’
Sadim was too shaken not to keep his promise.
Shortly after Danial returned from his dig in Greece to a radiant wife and thoughtful son, the street gangs hit the headlines. Sadim’s tormentors had broken into a goldsmiths and stolen half a million pounds worth of new gold bars. The Yardies came for their share with guns and knives. Someone tipped off the police; the gangs were jailed for a total of 500 years. The gold brought them, like Midas, misery.
Manny left everything to Sadim.