The mission: Quentin Fottrell has a pile of pennies burning a hole in his pocket. Will the change do him good?
Saturday 08 May 1999
Is he going to turn me away? Being refused admission to a public toilet must be like having your application rejected by a religious cult. As it happens, I've no need to worry. The attendant waves me through with the suspicious air of a customs official - but not before handing back my three pennies in disgust. My silver is good enough for him, but my coppers are not?
This is too bizarre. I cannot spend a penny in order to spend a penny? If ever there was a mission to be had, this is it. I don't have a piggy bank to break, so I set off to NatWest clasping a pounds 1 coin. "I'd like to exchange this for 100 pennies," I tell the cashier. Quick as a flash, she hands me a bag of pennies. It's heavier than I thought.
My first port of call is my favourite Fleet Street sandwich bar. This is risky. If my Scrooge-like prudence offends them, I'll never be able to show my face there again. My lunch comes to pounds 4.45. My face reddens as I approach the counter.
"I'd like to give you the 45p in pennies," I say. When I pull out my bag to extract the pennies, the person standing next to me glares. You'd think, by his expression, that I'd just pulled out my colostomy bag. But I stand proud. The assistant, to her credit, maintains her steely charm.
Still reeling from this success, I decide it's time to raise the stakes, so I brave the grumpy Tube man at my local station. "A weekly pass for Zones 1, 2, and 3," I say, feigning doe-eyed innocence. Still frowning, he starts to process my request.
I am dying to see my pennies whoosh down that copper chute under the pane of glass and into his scrutiny. But I dare not provoke him. Instead, I place the bag of 50 pennies in the chute, along with pounds 21. His expression doesn't change. The person behind me politely turns away.
The man empties the bag and slowly begins to count. He creates five stacks of pennies and, lo!, there are two pennies extra. Fancy that: I miscalculated. He slides them back to me along with my Tube pass.
I am on a roll. At the weekend, I lace my pocket with loose change before meeting a friend for dinner. We disagree over the choice of restaurant. I lose. My "medium rare" steak is black. The waitress responds to my complaints with an anaemic smile. To vent my frustration, I top up the (already healthy) tip with a sprinkling of pennies.
This was a big mistake. "What do you think you're doing?" my companion barks. I tell her that I'm, firstly, fulfilling my mission to spend pennies and, secondly, giving the restaurant its just deserts. "You can't do that," she says. "You can't blame the waitress for the poor food." I am thwarted.
My last temptation, however, is still to come. A brown envelope lands on my desk at the office. It's a whip-round for a colleague heading off on maternity leave. This is a perfect opportunity to spend my pennies anonymously. I glance around to see if I'm being watched.
But then it hits me: my menial gift could mean the difference between Baby Gap and Woolworths. Enough of this madness. My penny pinching is over
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