"The Exchange Rate" by Louise Hegarty

“The Exchange Rate” by Louise Hegarty

Money was tight for Madeleine: as tight as a steel drum or a throbbing bass-line or the wedding band on her mother’s finger. She had been working two low-paying jobs – babysitting for her neighbours two nights a week and working mornings in a local shop stacking shelves. But then suddenly her neighbours couldn’t pay her the usual wage and her hours were cut back in the shop.

Everyone was in the same boat though.

Her friends and family were all struggling too so she couldn’t go to them for help. She just needed some leverage to get her through these tough times. She told herself that once she had come out the other side everything would be fine again. She sent out dozens of CVs but didn’t hear back from anyone. She trailed the streets looking for any kind of jobs but no-one was hiring. Maybe her mother had been right. Maybe she should have taken one of those offers of marriage.

Her friends told her to go to the pawnshop in the city centre. That’s what they intended to do when it was nearing rent-day and they couldn’t scrape together the money. Madeleine searched through her house looking for something of value that she could exchange for money but she didn’t own any expensive jewellery and didn’t have a computer or a television or frankly anything particularly pricey. She lived simply and in reality she had very little material possessions to sell. Everyone had always told her that it was her personality that made her special, that made her stand out from the crowd and so bright and early Monday morning she walked to the pawnbrokers with the only thing she knew that was worth something.

It was sunny that day and she liked the feeling of the heat on her face and limbs as she queued up outside the pawnshop. The people around her were desperate. She could feel it. Those in front of her were carrying clear plastic bags full of gold rings and necklaces and bracelets and others had televisions hoisted under their arms. There were even some young children being pushed forward in the queue by their parents clutching onto their toys, not yet willing to let them go. A number of what she assumed to be regulars were talking to each other, exchanging tips and hints about saving money that was offered but most people were frantic in their silence.

As each approached the counter they dumped their bags or boxes or goods of whatever kind in front of the pawnbroker and allowed him to examine them. He didn’t indulge in small talk. Instead he lifted everything up inspecting the objects for marks or scratches, weighing anything made of gold and plugging in the electrical equipment to make sure that they worked. From time to time he would ask his assistant for his thoughts but most of the exchange was down to him alone. He would tally their total on a piece of scrap paper and would then bark out a number at the harried person across the counter. On occasion there would be some disagreement about the price but in the end everyone eventually took the money and left.

After quite a while in the queue Madeleine eventually made it to the counter. She placed herself in front of the man but put nothing on the table.

“What would you like to pawn?” he asked.

He considered her through his small round glasses, noticing the fraying edges of her light summer dress and the worrying lack of jewelery around her neck.

“My sense of humour,” Madeleine replied. He sighed.

“We don’t deal in the abstract here. You’ll have to go up to Hennessy’s,” he said, already gesturing for the next customer to come up to the counter. Madeleine smiled and thanked him as a woman bustled ahead of her and plonked a bag of gold rings down on the counter.

Madeleine skipped outside past the winding snake of people. The queue was getting longer now as those who had slept in arrived to join the desperation.

She walked up towards Hennessy’s, the big looming Victorian building on the brow of the hill where there was a much smaller queue. There was a sense of calmness here. In no time at all she got to the front where she once again put forward her proposal.

The man behind the counter eyed her up.

He was an elderly gentlemen with a trimmed white beard and a lined face where his cheeks seemed to have collapsed in on themselves causing his eyes to bulge somewhat. He made a point of remarking on her highly developed sense of humour before looking her up and down for another minute or two and saying, “That will be worth a bit, I think.” His assistant, smiling shyly at Madeleine, made out a receipt for her and then labelled the glass jar ‘One sense of humour – worth 250 credits’ before placing it on the shelf behind him.

“Nice doing business with you,” he said with a nod of his head. The old man counted out the money and Madeleine went home happy with her exchange.

She didn’t miss it at first; she didn’t even notice it was gone. She went about her day without feeling any change whatsoever. A sense of humour was not going to pay the bills so what was the point of it, she thought. It had got her a bit of money from the pawn-shop but that was it.

Okay, so comedy films didn’t make sense to her anymore and certain apparently friendly comments suddenly seemed incredibly offensive but there were always some side-effects to these sorts of exchanges and she had been aware of it when she signed up.

Her friends were less accepting of the situation. They had started feeling uncomfortable around her grimaces and rationality and longed for her lightness and her smiles to reappear. They didn’t understand where their friend had gone to.

At job interviews she sat stony-faced and confused as her perspective employer attempted to put her at ease with their humour. In fact she had begun to feel uncomfortable anytime humour was being used. Her friend’s laughter suddenly seemed irrational and strange. If a stranger on the bus attempted to joke with her she would blink silently at them before turning away in disgust. Her friends were worried about her and encouraged her to buy back her sense of humour and Madeleine nearly agreed with them. She was beginning to notice the adverse reaction it was having on people around her.

She asked her mother for her opinion.

“Well, you have been acting oddly of late. I had wondered what was up,” she said, downing two clean white pills with a glug of milky tea.

Dating had also become an issue.

Madeleine was pretty in a very natural, low-maintenance way. She rarely wore make-up and her hair laid unstyled around her ears but men found her attractive and she enjoyed their company and so on occasion she would allow herself to be taken out for dinner or a drink. Generally it went well but now she was being constantly confused by men. Their words washed over her making no sense and their jokes glanced off her like water of a duck’s back. The staccato-like sounds attacked her ears and had begun to make her feel nauseous. She became very introverted and unsure about going out. She found that suddenly she couldn’t understand people.

Eventually, she managed to get a new job in a clothes shop that paid reasonably well. Her co-workers would describe her as a hard worker but odd, ultra-rational and humourless. But she was so unhappy. She spent every night crying herself to sleep.

The sun was only rising when she raced down the hill towards the pawnshop, nearly tripping and falling a number of times on her way there. She could feel the panic rising in her throat. She could feel her heart beating in her chest. It was gaining speed. Faster, faster like Charlie Parker. She knocked on the door and pounded at the windows until the pawnbroker came out to her. He glanced at his watch and told her they weren’t open at this hour but she insisted.

“No can do I’m afraid,” the proprietor told her.

“What do you mean? I have the money,” she said throwing the notes onto the counter.

“It’s not the money that’s the issue. I told you when you came in that you had a particularly fine sense of humour. It was bought straight away. Very valuable little object it was.”

Madeleine was confused and frankly fed up.

“But I need it back. My life isn’t the same…I…” Tears had started rolling down over her cheekbones and dripping off her jawbone. The man smiled at her sympathetically. He glanced on the shelves behind him and took down a jar.

“Now, now, there’s no need to cry. Look I know it’s not the same but I do have this one here,” he said putting the glass jar up in front of himself. “It isn’t as good as your own of course but…”

“No, no I want mine. It’s the only one that will do.”

“Well I can’t do that I’m afraid. It’s been sold,” he said gesturing to the empty place on the shelf behind him.

“I’m desperate. I don’t feel like me any longer,” she pleaded. “My sense of humour was an integral part of my being and I feel lost without it. Please, tell me who bought it.”

“I can’t tell you that I‘m afraid. It’s confidential”

Madeline broke down in tears. They flowed down her face and onto the floor. She wailed as she pounded the counter sending loose change bouncing to the ground.

“There’s really no need for that,” he said attempting to grab her fists.

She ran out the door, tears flowing down her face. A small voice whispered something behind her. She turned and spotted the pawnbrokers assistant leaning out of the door and glancing worriedly behind him. When she spotted him he smiled at her and held out his hand in which he had clasped a scrap of paper.

“Here,” he said pushing the paper towards Madeleine. She took it from his hand. He had written an address on it in scrawled handwriting.

“Is this….?” she said, her voice quivering. He nodded.

“Thank you,” she said, shaking his hand frantically. Thank you so much.”

She ran to the bus stop and travelled the twenty miles to the address on the piece of paper. The entire trip there she could barely breathe and she cowered from others on the bus hoping they would not attempt any humour which now nauseated her. They acted like animals around her with their raucous laughter. They sickened her. She was overjoyed when they reached her bus stop and she hurried off the bus pushing passed bags and elbows.

As the bus moved away a wave of silence washed over the street. She stood there alone and unsure. She re-checked the address on the paper in her hands. Yes, it was the right house. But now she was here she didn’t know what to do.

The woman who answered the door was tall and lean, make-up etched perfectly on her face and her hair pulled back in a sophisticated bun. Madeleine hesitated. She knew that this was the woman: she could see it in her eyes. She had so much to say that she couldn’t decide what to start with. From the kitchen she could hear the sounds of children laughing.

“Yes, can I help you?”

Madeleine hesitated on the doorstep. No words came to her. She looked down at her shoes.

“You’re not one of those, are you? One of his?”

“My name is Madeleine. You bought a sense of humour from Hennessy’s pawnshop.” she said quickly. “It was mine.”

The woman took a step back before quickly composing herself. She smoothed down her unwrinkled skirt self-consciously.

“I’m not sure what you’re doing…but…I’m sorry but I can’t exchange it if that’s what you’re…,” the woman told her attempting to shut the door.

“No, no. I’m not looking for it back. I just wanted to speak to you for a moment.”

The woman hesitated, glancing around her.

“Okay you can come in but it’ll have to be quick. My husband will be back soon.”

She led Madeleine into the kitchen and shooed the children out.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

She boiled the water in silence and then placed the mug in front of Madeleine and offered her milk.

“This is rather odd,” the woman said at last. “Rather embarrassing.”

Madeleine nodded dumbly.

“What you must think of me….buying a sense of humour. I wouldn’t be…it was for my husband but he wasn’t interested….” The woman sighed gently to herself. “Rather silly, I think. Didn’t make any difference to him…”

“I feel so alone,” Madeleine said suddenly. And then everything came pouring out of Madeleine – about her friends and her mother and the mistakes at the pawnshop.

“I can’t tell if this is all real anymore,” Madeleine said. “I don’t feel myself. My reality is falling apart. Are you me now if you have a part of me?”

The woman put her hand on top of Madeleine’s and the two women looked at each other sharing their disappointments in silence.

“It was for him at first but now…it’s not,” the woman said into the silence. They sat for couple of moments listening to the ticking of the clock and the sounds of children playing somewhere upstairs. Madeleine, her hand still being clasped by this woman, closed her eyes and breathed in deeply relishing the calm.

“It’s okay,” Madeleine continued. “I don’t want it back. I just wanted to see what it was like…again…just one last time.”

Madeleine drained her mug and stood up sharply.

“I’ll leave now. I’m very sorry for disturbing you like this.”

She hurried out the door and down the drive, not hearing the woman’s ‘goodbye’ floating along the breeze after her. It had suddenly become dark outside. Madeleine sobs caught in her throat. She looked down at the teardrops collecting in her palms and started to laugh hysterically.

Louise Hegarty is 22 years old and lives in Cork, Ireland. She have won the iYeats Emerging Writer Poetry Competition 2009 and has been shortlisted for the inaugural RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition, the Writing Spirit Award 2011 and the 2012 Flatt Prize for Literature. Most recently, her work has been featured in the anthology ‘wordlegs presents: 30 Under 30’. Hegarty has work published or forthcoming in wordlegs, The Poetry Bus magazine, Minus 9 Squared, Popshot Magazine, Crannóg, Boyne Berries, thefirstcut, The Alarmist and Cuadrivio.