The penny dropped 0

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It’s extraordinary when moments of insight strike you; or should I say… where. The last time for me, I was standing at the urinal in a not particularly salubrious public toilet, but when you gotta go! Anyway, I glanced up at a louvered window that was grudgingly allowing a small amount of daylight in. There, scrawled on the wall beside it was a message: Ring Jack — 04*** *** ***.

Now I can’t be sure of the actual number apart from the fact that the prefix ‘04’ signified that it was a mobile number. I didn’t think to write it down because my hands were full at the time; you understand. Also, I was intent on not getting too close and splashing the boots! In any event, I’m not of the particular persuasion that was implicated in the placement of that phone number. Frankly it seemed a bit sordid.

Nonetheless, I suddenly had a moment of comprehension, cognizance, intuition… call it what you will. The penny dropped, as the saying goes.

It’s that wondrous moment when a knotty problem suddenly presents a solution. A delayed apprehension of something after a period of misunderstanding or unfamiliarity. The sunlight poured in through the little dirty louvered window — now I understand; Eureka, I’m alive! Get on with things; life is short; you’re a long time dead.

Now the Oxford English Dictionary postulates that this phrase was ‘coined’ (if you will) by means of allusion to the mechanism of penny-in-the-slot machines. Rather hard to imagine in this digital age. The picture of someone waiting for a penny-in-the-slot mechanism to operate; that often jammed incidentally, sounds quite reasonable. After an intolerable wait, the coin would drop into the collecting box; the circuit would be complete and the machine would disgorge the appropriate product, be it chewing gum, tobacco, condoms, chocolate or potato chips. The machine came alive.

If that isn’t the origin, it’s difficult to imagine what is. Public toilets in Britain in 1939 required users to ‘spend a penny’ in order to unlock the door to get in. That in turn has given rise to speculation as to the origin of the phrase. Can you imagine the consternation if you fumbled and your penny dropped on the floor and rolled away?

However there’s no solid evidence (pun unintended) to support the theory. I’m reminded at this point of an old joke: A woman rushes up to a steward on an ocean liner and asks where the nearest public convenience is. The steward gives the appropriate directions and adds, ‘You’ll need some coins for the convenience.’ The woman is dumbstruck and cries, “You can’t be serious — pay toilets on an ocean liner?” The steward replies imperiously, ‘Madam, this is the Cunard Line, not the P & O.’

Similarly, the idea that the expression initiated with the ‘Button A/Button B’ style of telephone boxes, which, used coins as payment for calls and these were also in use circa 1939. The expression, ‘the penny dropped’, has also been applied to coin-operated weighing scales. As in, ‘the needle started around the figures, and stopped this time on 150’. I just hope that they weren’t talking about kilograms! But I procrastinate…

Some weeks ago I was sitting in the car, panting for lack of breath as usual, waiting for my partner to return. There was a light rain and I could see a young couple sitting close by on a park bench, canoodling. I felt a bit like an unwilling voyeur — young love is so sweet. They hid under the boy’s hoodie to avoid the drizzle and my prying glances. ‘Oh get a room,’ I was thinking to myself. Time stood still. At length they gave me a baleful stare, laughed, and wandered away. I was inexplicably bereft. Was I giving them a disapproving scorn — surely not! What’s happened to my life? Who is the old fart who stares back at me from the mirror with disdain? Why is he following me about? Why am I asking myself all these rhetorical questions? Perhaps it’s the onset of early dementia!

Later on, when we were sitting in a café, there was a young woman seated nearby who was demonstrating her own style. Her hair was shaved up the back in a style reminiscent of an inmate from a 1930s prison film. At the front she had a fringe that fell over her eyes rather like a Skye terrier. Only the fringe varied in colour from puce to purple with snatches of orange. I hasten to add that she was clearly not an alternative type or a Goth; apart from one or two metallic piercings and a couple of tatts, for her clothes were stylish and expensive: fine quality. A young baby was sitting on her lap but hard to tell if a boy or girl. The child was agog, taking in the surroundings. The café was somewhat noisy and the baby began to protest. So the impossibly young mother (to my jaundiced eyes!), quite without any trace of self-consciousness, undid her designer blouse, took out her left breast and began to feed the child.

I felt a mixture of emotions: momentary disbelief; a mild sense of erotica; a pleasant sensation that the child (mother and baby) were carrying on the timeless tradition of nourishment of the most natural sort; finally and sadly the realisation that this is another area of my life that has now passed. You could hear a bit of tut-tutting here and there but the young mother, to her credit, ignored everyone bar the needs of her baby and I felt a vague sense of contentment. It was rather a beautiful moment.

What is the link between these three events and what is the revelation that I have alluded to? I think it’s rather that ‘life goes on within you and without you’ to quote George Harrison and I’m sure he probably picked it up in turn from some ancient Vedic text.

My partner and I have had a dreadful year (2016) with various health concerns and yet we’ve managed to pull through. Time for us to enjoy ourselves to the hilt and stop worrying about trifles; stop being judgemental and let our pennies drop. And as far as Jack from the public toilet is concerned; it’s well past time to live and let live. I can only hope that he (or she) finds some sort of fulfilment and perhaps he or she can finally remove the phone number from the wall.

Has there been a moment where you have had a realisation such as this? Tell us about a time when ‘the penny dropped’ for you.

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James Craib



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