|Priceless was my first published short story, and appeared in Britain's Woman's Weekly magazine. I have also written a 10-minute screenplay adaptation of it, so if you are a filmmaker seeking a short movie to showcase your talents, look no further. (Britishisms: ITV = Commercial television, Florin = old silver coin, long obsolete, Salford = a northern town, actually not as bad as it's reputed to be).|
Valerie had never heard Dad wheeze like that. In fact, she had never heard anybody or anything make a noise quite like that.
"You all right, Dad?"
No answer, just more wheezing as he plodded along behind her. Valerie reached the door, checked the number against that on the key, let herself in, and found a modest but pleasant-enough room. Her artist's eye took in the decor and was not pleased, but nor was it too bad as campus accommodation goes. Valerie entered and put her shoulder bag and suitcase onto the bed. She was in her early twenties and dressed casually but with some flair. Most people upon seeing her would guess, correctly, that she was an art student. She turned to face the open door.
The terrible rasping noise could still be heard from outside the room.
More, heavier panting was heard, as Dad finally made it to the room but could not quite summon the lungpower to enter.
"You all right?" she repeated.
He entered at last, looking far from all right as he struggled manfully to pull a small suitcase on wheels, his grey head bowed with the effort.
He raised a hand to prevent Valerie helping him, but he was still panting too much to speak.
"What's in that thing anyway?" she demanded, "Come on, sit down on the bed."
He did so, still stubbornly holding onto the carrying handle of the suitcase.
Valerie took a bottle of mineral water from her shoulder bag and unscrewed the cap.
"You'd better drink some water," she said, handing him the bottle, "What would Mom say if you dropped dead on me?"
He accepted the water and took a sip, with a very shaky hand.
"I'm still not sure why you came," said Valerie, sitting on the bed beside him.
Her tone softened as she realized her last remark sounded rude.
"Dad, I'm really grateful to you for driving me here. It was very good of you."
He tried to answer her but even now could still only manage the most terrible gasping noises. He was not particularly old but a life of hard manual work had prematurely aged him. His lungs bore the scars of many years in the dust and heat of a steel mill and his generous waistline was witness to his penchant for fried food. People said Valerie had his features rather than her mum's, but as she sat next to him now, her youthful skin was in stark contrast to his rough, deep-lined face.
Putting a hand on his knee Valerie continued, "I know it wasn't easy for you. It must be years since you've driven." She paused, as she remembered the journey. "It wasn't easy for me at times. You will drive carefully on the way back, won't you Dad?"
Nodding a reply, he still lacked the breath to talk.
She got up and briskly started getting settled in. She opened her suitcase and started to unpack her clothes and hang them up and put them in drawers, talking as she did so.
"You just rest till you get your breath back. You should be more careful. You were warned not to carry heavy things, with your heart. God only knows what's in that suitcase."
"Don't blaspheme, Val."
"Oh, he speaks. Are you feeling all right now?"
"I'm fine. I was just a little out of breath."
"A little? Why didn't you let me help you carry that thing?"
He still had hold of the handle, unwilling to release his precious charge.
"No, no, no. It's fine."
Dad cast a critical look around the room.
"It's small. Will you be all right here?"
"Come on, it's bigger than the room I had at college. And at home I never had my own room." There might have been a trace of resentment in her voice.
"We never could afford a big house." he mumbled, "Not one big enough for a family the size of ours."She walked around the bed and sat down beside him again.
"I know, Dad. I'm not getting at you. You and Mum did very well, considering. Don't worry about me. I only have to stay here for a week. And I won't spend much time in my room, I'll be working most of the time."
"What is it you're going to be doing?"
She had answered this question many times. Rising, she resumed her unpacking and rather wearily repeated her explanation.
"Like I explained to you, Dad, it's an Arts Council scheme, for new art college graduates. A competition. There's a studio set up for us here on campus. We are here for a week. At the weekend they judge the entries."
"Yes, but more importantly, if I'm among the prizewinners, I'm made. The publicity's invaluable. There's a television film crew here to cover the whole thing."
He visibly puffed up with pride at the sound of this.
"You'll be on television?
"Like I keep telling you, yes, your daughter will be interviewed on TV."
"Don't worry, it's the real thing. The precious British Broadcasting Corporation." She stopped for a moment as a memory came to her. "I remember when I was kid, you used to sit glued to the wrestling every Saturday morning. When Mum told you it was fake you said it didn't matter, it was only ITV. Remember that?"
He scowled. Smiling, Valerie sat next to him on the bed.
"They follow each artist as we work on our piece. They interview us throughout the week. The judging is on Saturday. It'll be broadcast."
"You should do a horse. You were always good at drawing horses."
"It's not a drawing competition. It's sculpture. 'Any medium. Figurative or semi-figurative' it says."
"I know what that means. It means it has to look like something. Your horses always looked like horses. A big bronze horse. That's what you want."
"I need something both less ambitious and more original than an equestrian bronze, Dad."
He grimaced, as if with pain and started to rub his left shoulder. Valerie didn't notice straight away, being suddenly preoccupied with thoughts of what she might do for the competition.
"I'm not sure what I'll do," she frowned, "Wish I did. I'm just hoping for inspiration at the last moment."
Dad's hand moved to his chest. Now she noticed.
"Hey, Dad, you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, fine, fine."
"You have to watch your heart."
She stared at the suitcase, which Dad was still grasping.
"Now will you tell me what's in the bloody suitcase? Why did you bring it? Is it something for me?"
"Of course, you're the one who's staying here."
"For God...for pity's sake tell me what it is."
Enjoying teasing her, he started to chuckle, but it broke into a wheezing cough. She put her hand on his shoulder.
"Dad, calm down."
"Okay, okay. I'll tell you. It's like this. You kids never had all the things I wanted you to have.
"Is that what's in the case," she laughed, "All the things I ever wanted to have? No wonder it's so heavy."
"No, no, I'm just saying..."
"I know, it's a great lump of bronze, so I can cast that horse."
"Sorry, Dad. You've been preparing this speech and I have to let you do it, I know."
"Right. The thing is, we never had much and I think you kids always felt that you were deprived."
He paused, waiting for her to contradict him, but she just stared blankly.
"It's no good denying it," he continued, "I know it's true. So now I want to make it up to you. I thought this was the time to do it. This is when it will be most use to you, now that you are out of college and adrift in the..."
"No, I don't mean that. I mean...now that you are making your way..."
Obviously very pleased with the phrase, he repeated it with some emphasis.
"Making your way in the harsh, real...now that you are alone in the hostile..."
"Dad, I told you I'm not taking that job in Salford," she chuckled.
"Listen, I'm trying to explain."
"I know you are, Dad. You've got me a graduation gift. That's lovely of you. Do I open it now or do you want to tell me what it is?"
He moved very close to her and lowered his voice, obviously excited at making his announcement.
He paused for dramatic effect.
"I know," she laughed, "It's full of money. That'll be it, won't it Dad?"
Her laugh ceased as she saw the expression on her father's face. It was one of acute disappointment, the way a standup comic might look if someone in the audience shouted out the punchline to his joke. Valerie stared at him, then at the case and then back at him.
"Good God," she said finally, "It can't be. How can it be full of money?"
"All these years, I've been putting some aside. Saving for when I thought it would do most good. Now it's all yours, Val. All yours."
"But, if it's full of money that would be...thousands."
"Thousands," Dad concurred, with a triumphant look.
Tens or hundreds of thousands thought Valerie, as she confusedly tried to calculate how much the bag could hold. As she began to slowly regain her composure, her humor returned with it.
"With a suitcase full of money I could pay off part of my student loan." Then she briefly had a darker thought. "You sure it's not nicked or something?"
"Of course not. Like I said, I saved it.
"Yes, yes of course. I just can't believe you could save so much."
They sat and stared at the suitcase for a while. Finally, Dad rose. Gently, he lowered the suitcase so that it lay flat on its base. Then he sat back down heavily on the bed. Valerie, without speaking or taking her eyes off the suitcase, slowly walked around and crouched down in front of it. She released the clasps. Very gingerly, she lifted the lid.
She stared open-mouthed at the contents.
"You're right. It's full of money all right."
She reached both hands into the case and scooped up some of the money, which jangled and ran through her fingers. The case was near-full of coins, coins of all kinds, including some denominations she had not seen for years.
"I don't believe it."
"I told you Val, didn't I?"
"You did Dad, you certainly did."
She let the coins fall, then picked up an old florin-type ten pence piece.
"Dad, a lot of these are..." She hesitated.
"Florins," he said, "Two shillings. Ten pence now."
"Yes, Dad, that's right. Ten pence now. You've been saving these for a long time, haven't you?"
"Years and years. Putting odd change aside. Always thinking that one day it would be yours, you being the youngest and you being the girl. I worked out you'd be the one to benefit from it most."
"Because I'm a girl?"
"Because you'd be the most likely to put it to good use, make something of it, you know?"
She closed the lid and sat down again beside him.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful thought. You must have made real sacrifices, not spending that. Not to mention rupturing yourself bringing it up here."
He seemed pleased.
"I never doubted it was worthwhile. It'll give you the start in life that I never had."
"It will, Dad." She hugged him very tightly. "It's a wonderful gesture, Dad. Oh, I do love you."
"And you're my special girl. I always wanted to help you in some way. Now at last I have."
His voice was faltering slightly and Valerie was suddenly concerned about him again.
"Dad, maybe you should lie down a little before you leave. Have a little rest."
He was clearly in some distress.
"You know, Val, I think I will. Just a little rest."
He slowly stretched out on the bed, with Valerie's help. Resting his head on the pillow, his eyes closed and he went very still. She stroked his cheek.
"Dad, you really are..."
"...'Priceless'," said Valerie, in her acceptance speech, "Is a work in memory my father, who passed away just one week ago. "I accept this prize in loving memory of him. He never had much money but when he did have some to give, he gave it with love. And that is truly priceless." On the podium beside her on stage was her bust of Dad, modelled from coins, stacked and glued together to form the head, neck and shoulders. Silver-coloured coins formed the top of the head to represent grey hair. The rest was bronze, just as he had suggested. He was right -- she had made something of it.