Dreadful Penny by Charlie Fish

In the style of a Victorian "penny dreadful", this story tells of a paramedic whose luck changes when he finds an old penny.

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I took the dreadful penny from a dead man's car. It's a 1987 penny with a little nick on the Queen's nose.

The man had come right out through the windscreen. Seven years as a paramedic and I'd never seen anything like it. He flew twenty feet and still had enough velocity when he hit the lamppost to split his head open like a watermelon.

The medical textbook says it best:

When presented with a pulseless patient, medical professionals are required to perform CPR unless specific conditions are met which allow them to pronounce the patient as deceased. For example:

Decapitation, incineration, severed body, and other injuries not compatible with life. If a patient is presenting with any of these conditions, it should be intuitively obvious that the patient is non-viable.

I grabbed a body bag from the ambulance.

On the way back I did a visual sweep of the car in case someone else was in there, and a glint caught my eye. Instinctively, I put my hand through the bent metal and picked up the penny from the driver's seat.

I pocketed it and went over to scoop pieces of brain into the body bag. Definitely non-viable.

On my way home that night I thought about the dead guy. I couldn't get him out of my head. I went into the Londis on Borough High Street to buy a sandwich for supper but all the fillings looked like mashed brains. I bought a plasticky salad.

I bought a Lottery scratch card too. I never win more than a couple of quid, and always end up using it to buy more scratch cards, but it keeps me dreaming. I pulled the penny out of my pocket and scratched off the silver coating right there on the counter.

It took me a few seconds to register how much I'd won. I checked three times to be sure. The man behind the counter leaned over to see what I was looking at; I jerked the ticket away and left in a hurry.

I stuffed the ticket into my pocket and left my hand there so I could feel it. I was sure everyone was looking at me. I was suddenly paranoid that I'd be attacked. I quick-marched to the Tube station.

In my other hand, I was still holding the penny. I looked at it and realised it was the one from the dead man's car.

When I got to the platform I pulled the ticket out again to check I wasn't dreaming. £250,000... £250,000... £250,000. I folded it back into my pocket, and dropped the penny by mistake.

The penny rolled along the platform and I chased it, trying to stamp on it. Forgive me for being a little superstitious but with a job like mine it helps to believe in higher powers. That penny had to be the luckiest penny in the world and I was not going to let it go.

I dived to catch it. I hadn't seen the incoming train. It missed my head by an inch - I think it touched my hair. I got up and dusted myself off, my heart in my mouth. After a few seconds I became dimly aware that the platform attendant was shouting at me. I ignored him and boarded the train.

I felt a bit sick by the time I got home. I think it was the adrenalin. I was convinced that I would have a heart attack or a piano would fall on my head before I managed to cash in this ticket. But I got home without being dead.

My hands were shaking, so I put the kettle on. I pulled out the ticket - the penny flicked out too and landed somewhere with a clink. I looked around my feet and on the countertop but I couldn't see it. Never mind, I thought, it can't have gone far.

I stared at the scratch card again. A quarter of a million pounds. I read all the rules and Ts & Cs on the back, and I re-checked the numbers. It seemed real. It was real. I pocketed it again. I wasn't going to let it leave my side.

The kettle boiled and I poured myself a mug of tea. I sat down and started scheming about what I would do with the money. I would buy a car. And a house. I wouldn't tell anyone, but I'd arrange mysterious windfalls for my friends and family. I wouldn't quit my job, but I'd do fewer hours.

I downed the last bit of tea and started to choke. The penny. It had fallen into the mug, and now it was in my throat. Choking is a horrible feeling. It's not that I couldn't breathe, but it was like breathing through a thin straw, and when I breathed in it felt like I was sucking the coin deeper. It hurt. It felt like a cheese grater against my larynx. I could picture the soft, fragile tube being slashed irreparably and I started to panic.

I swallowed and sucked and tried to cough. My breath started to gurgle and it became harder to suck in air. The hypoxaemia was setting in. Then I had a moment of clarity, and I scrambled around to the back of the chair. I put my diaphragm against the wooden slat and Heimliched myself so hard I think I broke a rib.

Needless to say, it worked, or I wouldn't be telling you this story.

I spat out the bloody coin and immediately vomited onto the floor. I gingerly made my way to the sink to get some water (although I did not welcome the prospect of drinking with my throat in so much pain). But the penny had got stuck between two floorboards and my shuffling feet caught it; I tripped and, in my weakened state, lost my balance and fell, cracking my head on the corner of the kitchen table.

I might have been unconscious for a while. I was aware of being on the floor, in serious pain pretty much all over my body. The fucking penny was trying to kill me.

I scraped myself off the floor, snatched the penny up and threw it out of the window. About ten seconds later, my doorbell started ringing incessantly. Muddy-headed, I stumbled to the front door and opened it.

"Did you throw this fucking penny at me?"

The man at the door had shoulders like the Hoover Dam. His right eyelid flickered as if his body was just on the edge of being in control. I opened my mouth to explain myself, and coughed a fine spray of blood all over his face. He looked even more surprised than I was.

He frantically wiped his face with his T-shirt and then started hitting me again and again, screaming, "It's in my eye! It's in my eye! You could've given me AIDS!"

He left a couple of minutes before the police arrived. My next-door neighbour called them I think. I was lying on the floor, bleeding.


I muttered something. I was barely conscious.

"Oh hey," said the policeman. "You're a paramedic aren't you? I saw you earlier today, at that accident over by London Bridge. That guy who went clear through his windscreen. You know, they reckon he was wearing his seat belt, but it failed because there was something stuck in it. A coin or something."

"The penny!" I said, throat rattling. I frisked my pockets. The scratch card. That thug who had beaten me up had taken the scratch card. "He stole it! He stole it!"

"Hey, hey, calm down. You need some medical attention. Who cares about a stupid penny?"

"No, he stole -"

"Look, here's a lucky penny for you," he said, picking the penny up off the floor. "Have this one instead."

I'm in hospital now. I still have the penny. So if I die, you know why. And if you ever find yourself in possession of a 1987 penny with a little nick on the Queen's nose, get rid of it. For God's sake get rid of it.


  1. “Dreadful Penny” is part Monty Python and part Rod Serling and is rich in irony and best intensions. The hapless paramedic is a feckless blunderer; all he need to have done was append his signature to the lottery scratch-off chance, in order to forestall theft. We can all empathize with the MC’s increased paranoia, which in the end was well-founded. Charming, amusing story, Charlie – a little gem.

  2. A lucky penny quickly turning evil and a lottery ticket. This will not end well. So, what the reader needs is for the journey to be entertaining, and this story nails it. The tea mug part was the best for me - a great pay-off to the "where is it" question. It was a good touch not making the hapless hero a complete heel - he actually wants to share some of the lottery winnings.

  3. There is a concept in the popular writing book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders that a story is "a continual system of escalation".
    This is an excellent story as it has excellent (and comedic, ad absurdum) escalation!

    (…was the penny face up or face down?... there is some precedent in supersition that this positioning might control its relative good vs. bad luck properties… :-))

  4. Really relatable MC. I love how he says, “I think” a lot. It gives it verisimilitude. The premise is engaging and brings us on a sojourn. Thanks!

  5. I enjoyed the pace and escalation of this story. We all look over our shoulders in superstition when we feel that we maybe shouldn't have taken something. It was not theft, it was a minuscule item belonging to a dead man. No one would miss it. And yet ... Well done!

  6. That was fun! Chuckled through most every line while bracing myself for the little bit of dread leading to the next sentence. The only thing I felt pretty sure of was that this poor SOB would fall fate to irony at the end. Thanks for sharing this morbidly hilarious tale!