By Brian Robinson.
Today promised to be one of the best days of his life. Tim had reached his tenth birthday, and that in itself was a special milestone. But the day was special for one other important reason. Today was to be the first day he would be allowed to go into Cambridge City Centre all on his own. The day, however, was threatened because his mum had fallen ill and he hadn’t planned for that. Two weeks earlier, the whole family had arrived back from a holiday in South America, and his mum had been feeling unwell ever since. Everyone assumed she had merely picked up some bug so no one was taking too much notice. However, on that particular day, she had taken a turn for the worse and the doctor had been called. Tim had been hoping to share at least part of his special day with his mum, but now it looked like she might not be able to get involved at all. In fact, Tim didn’t really feel like going out, but both his parents insisted that he should because they knew he had been looking forward to this day for such a long time. Tim knew precisely where he wanted to go, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
Tim’s house was close to the heart of Cambridge, and in the City Centre, there was a shop that specialised in the sale of old coins and stamps. Tim was a very keen coin collector and had visited the shop in Sydney Street many times before. Today, however, was going to be different. Tim was going to visit all on his own. He had lots of birthday money burning a hole in his pocket: and he knew the coins were sat in Sydney Street just waiting for him to arrive. When he got to the shop, he found he was the only customer there, so that meant he had the full attention of the shopkeeper. That made him feel good because he loved talking about coins and especially about their history.
Tim collected mainly ancient Greek coins and a few British ones. Many of the Greek ones depicted the old gods and Tim became quite interested in Greek mythology. He was also fascinated by the thought that these coins had been around for literally hundreds if not thousands of years. What tales they could tell if only they could talk.
There were thousands of coins on display at the shop so Tim felt spoiled for choice. But funnily enough, what caught his eye was something that looked like an old bronze ring and not like a coin at all. “What’s that ring doing here,” he asked. “That’s not even a coin.” Tim seemed quite indignant that the ring should be there at all.
“I beg to differ, young man,” the shopkeeper said. “This is what’s known as Ring Money. It’s well over two thousand years old. People used to wear them on their fingers so they wouldn’t lose them.”
“Can I have a look?” Tim said.
“Of course,” said the shopkeeper while removing the ring from the glass cabinet and laying it on the counter. Tim picked up the ring-coin, and he liked the feel of it. He rolled it around in his hand. People who collect old coins tend to do that. Coins have to feel right as well as look right. He was just about to try and place it on one of his fingers when the shopkeeper said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Why not?” Tim asked.
“Well it’s a long story, but let’s just say it would be bad luck if you did.”
“What do you mean bad luck?” Tim asked.
“Look, why don’t you just take my word for it.” For some reason, the shopkeeper didn’t seem to be in the mood for talking that day. Tim was quite put out by that. However, he might have been put out, but he wasn’t going to be put off.
“How much is it?”
“You can have it for thirty quid and trust me that’s a real bargain. The coin is over two thousand four hundred years old, and for thirty quid, I’m practically giving it away.” Tim sensed the shopkeeper was trying to clinch the deal, but he wasn’t about to let things go that easily.
“I’ll buy it,” Tim said, “but if there’s a story attached to it, then I think you ought to tell me about it.”
The shopkeeper hesitated and looked at his watch. Then, after a moment or two he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what, I’ve got to close up for lunch now. Why don’t you join me for a cup of tea and I’ll tell you everything I know about the coin.”
“Do I have to promise to buy it first?” Tim asked.
“No, absolutely not. After you’ve heard the story you might not want to buy it at all,” the shopkeeper said smiling to himself. He then locked the shop up and ushered Tim out to a room to the rear. He made them both a mug of tea, and they sat down at a table together. The shopkeeper had brought the ring-coin with him, and he placed it on the table in front of him. “It’s a silly story really, and you’d have to be stupid to believe it, but I’ll tell it to you anyway. The first time I saw this ring was when a gentleman came into the shop to sell his entire coin collection. He looked quite scruffy and I could see he was a bit agitated. He was coughing all the time we were talking, and I remember this quite distinctly because I was afraid I would catch whatever it was he had.
“Anyway, he looked as if he was down on his luck and needed the money. So I was pretty sure he was only selling the coins because he had fallen on hard times.
“His collection was composed entirely of ancient Greek coins, and they were quite valuable. They were mainly silver and gold and generally speaking they were all in excellent condition. He also had several bronze coins that were not so valuable, and this ring-coin was amongst them. I valued the collection as a whole and gave him a price. He agreed on the spot because I had given him a fair price and we shook hands on the deal.
“Then, for some strange reason, he changed his mind about the ring-coin and said he didn’t want to include it in the sale. Now I remember I was a bit annoyed at the time because I had valued the collection as a whole and we had shaken hands on the deal. Once you shake hands on a deal that’s it, you can’t change your mind. Anyway, I told him he had to include the ring-coin and he could take it or leave it.
“Then he began to tell me some ridiculous story about the ring-coin having a curse on it. I think he was trying to put me off, but I wasn’t falling for it.”
“What do you mean? What sort of curse?” asked Tim.
“Well, he said the coin had some connection with a dead person. And he told me whoever owns the coin will be haunted by that person.”
“Did he say who the dead person was?” Tim asked.
“No, all he said was that the coin had brought him terrible bad luck and he didn’t want anyone else to suffer in the same way he had. That’s all I know. However, the more he tried to persuade me not to buy the coin, the more I dug my heels in and became determined not to give way on our deal.”
“How long ago did this happen?” Tim asked.
“It’s funny you should ask that. The man came into my shop on the very first day I opened here some twenty odd years ago, and I’ve never seen or heard of him since. And do you know what’s even stranger, I’ve had that coin in that same glass cabinet for all those years, and you are the first person to ask about it or take the slightest bit of interest in it. “Do you still want to buy it?”
“Yes, I think I do. There’s something about it that’s saying buy me.” Then Tim said, “Yes, I think we have a deal.” Tim held his hand out, and they shook hands to seal their bargain.
Altogether, Tim spent over two hours in the shop as well as most of his birthday money. He bought the ring-coin, one or two other bronze coins and a tiny silver one. The shopkeeper went on to tell him all sorts of tales about the gods that were shown on the various coins and about Ancient Greece itself. Tim sat riveted as each story unfolded. By the time he left the shop, he was feeling on top of the world.
On his way home, he began to speculate if the story about the ghost was just a tall tale. He wasn’t frightened of things that go bump in the night, not that he had ever heard anything go bump in the night. When he arrived home, he was surprised to see an ambulance parked outside his house. He rushed in, and his dad was inside talking to the doctor. “It’s better to be safe than sorry Mr. Evans. We’ll get her off to the hospital and do some tests. We do need to get to the bottom of this. Your wife is very ill,” the doctor said.
“Is mum going to be all right?”Tim asked.
“She’s taken a turn for the worse son, but I’m sure she’ll be okay. You’re not to worry,” Tim’s dad said. The rest of the day was a bit hectic. All thought of coins and birthdays seemed to disappear into the cloud that hung over his mum. The hospital decided she needed to stay in overnight, so Tim and his dad returned home. Towards the end of that same evening, Tim went to his bedroom to add his latest coins to his collection. He thought this might help him stop worrying about his mum.
Tim kept his coins in a chest which he had placed at the foot of his bed. By this time he had quite a few coins, and they gave him a great deal of pleasure. Often he would get them out and wonder about all the different gods he saw on them. He wondered if Zeus was as scary as legend had it, or if Aphrodite was as beautiful as they said. These gods were involved in the everyday lives of the ancient Greeks, and they affected almost everything they did. He added the ring-coin and the other coins to his collection and put them back in the chest. His thoughts then turned to his mum again. She had some terrible symptoms: a high fever, painful joints and she had even started to bleed from her gums. That night Tim cried himself to sleep.
The very next morning he got out of bed and was just about to go to the bathroom when he noticed that the ring-coin was sat on top of the chest and was not inside with the rest of his coins as he had left them. “That’s funny,” he said to himself. “I’m sure I put that coin away.” He put the ring back in the chest again and thought no more about it. The following day they spent most of their time going back and forth to the hospital visiting his mum. She seemed to be getting worse by the hour. Late in the day, when the hospital had run all their tests, the doctor met with Tim and his dad to tell them about the results. He took them into a side room and sat them both down. “The tests show that your wife has caught Dengue Fever. It’s a virus quite common in South America and is spread mainly by mosquitoes. It’s quite a serious virus, but it’s not usually fatal.”
“Thank God for that,” said Tim’s dad. The words came blurting out.
“However, there is a problem. Unfortunately, with Dengue Fever you have to catch it early to treat it successfully. I think your wife has probably had this for well over two weeks by now and that’s not good. There also seems to be a problem with her immune system. For some reason, her body doesn’t seem to be fighting the virus and that’s very strange.”
“Oh my God!” Tim’s dad said. “What does this mean? Can’t you kill the virus?”
“No, I’m afraid there’s no cure for Dengue Fever. All we can do is treat her symptoms, keep her hydrated and help with pain relief,” The doctor replied.
“Will she die?” Tim’s dad asked bluntly.
“I’m afraid that’s in the lap of the gods. But we’ll do all we can. The next forty-eight hours will be crucial for her.”
That evening, Tim’s dad called all his family and close friends and gave them the bad news. Various family and friends descended on the house, and the mood became sombre. Tim sat quietly in a chair listening to everything that was being said. His mind was racing at a hundred miles an hour. If only they had realised mum was ill much earlier. This virus is rarely fatal so why is my mum in such danger? And anyway, why can’t they cure this? If we can land a man on the moon, then why can’t we kill a silly old virus he thought? Then, he even began to wonder about the coin and the curse? Perhaps I’m responsible, and maybe it was me that brought this horrible curse down on my mum?
He went to his bedroom later that evening with his emotions in turmoil. The first thing he did when he entered his room was to look at his coin chest, and sure enough, the ring-coin had somehow found its way back to the top of the chest again. Tim began to think there was definitely something peculiar going on. Perhaps there might have been some truth in what the shopkeeper had told him. Tim knew he wouldn’t sleep that night. So he put the coin back in the chest, he got undressed and into his pyjamas, and then he sat up in bed with his knees tucked under his chin staring at the chest waiting for something to happen.
In the middle of the night, a strange blue mist began to appear above the chest and when it eventually cleared he saw an old man sitting there. He had his head in his hands, and he looked forlorn and miserable. The old man turned towards Tim but said nothing. Tim wasn’t in the slightest bit scared. He had too much other stuff on his mind for that. After a minute or two, Tim asked, “Are you all right?”
“No I’m afraid I’m not all right,” the ghost replied. “At least you’re not scared to death of me. That makes a pleasant change. The last person I haunted accused me of putting a curse on him.”
“You’re not a bad ghost then?” Tim said.
“I’ve got enough problems of my own thank you very much. I have neither the time nor the inclination to curse anyone.”
“Can I ask why you’re here? Why have you chosen to come and haunt me?”
“I think you’ll find it’s the other way around. You chose me when you bought the ring-coin. You see that ring was on my finger when I died and whoever owns it gets me as well. That’s the way these things work,” said the ghost.
“I don’t know anything about ghosts. I don’t know how they work. Perhaps you could tell me. What caused you to become a ghost in the first place?” Tim asked.
“There is no single answer to that question. Ghosts come about for lots of different reasons. Quite often though, people become ghosts because a life has been shortened unnaturally in some way. In my case, I’m a ghost because I took my own life. Anyone who tries to avoid their true destiny by killing themselves is bound to become a ghost.”
“What drove you to do that? You must have been feeling really miserable?” suggested Tim.
“It’s not quite as simple as that. You see I lived in Athens in the fifth century before Christ, and at that time one of the greatest crimes was impiety. I was accused of blasphemy and put on trial by the state. Blasphemy is another way of describing disrespect for the gods. But in fact, I never disrespected the gods,” explained the ghost.
“What did you do then? I don’t understand?”
“Okay, I’ll explain. I was quite a famous person back in Athens. I became well known for my thinking because I thought differently to most other people. It was my habit to question everything. Many people used to come to me when they wanted to find out the truth about things. It could be the truth about themselves; the truth about the universe; and even the truth about the gods. I thought it strange for example that there were so many gods, and I also thought it odd that the gods were always fighting amongst themselves. They never really set a good example for us humans so I questioned this. It was my questioning of the gods that upset so many people, and that’s why I was placed on trial and eventually found guilty.”
“How did you end up taking your own life then?” asked Tim.
“Well, after I was found guilty I was offered banishment as a punishment. That would mean I would be cast out of Athens and never allowed to return. But in those days it was very dangerous to be banished from your city, and as I was already an old man, I refused. The second option was death by taking Hemlock which is a poison. I would be given the poison and expected to drink it. Just before I took the poison, some of my friends bribed a jailer to come and see me to help me try and escape. They begged me to take the chance of saving my life. I refused because I loved Athens so much and couldn’t bear to leave it. I also refused because I had to stand up for what I believed in and for the things that seemed to be true to me. So, I took the poison.”
“That’s horrible. I can’t believe that people can do that. They were so unkind to you. No one should die just for telling the truth. No one should die for what they believe in,” Tim said.
“Well that may be so, but they were difficult and turbulent times. I made my choice, but I can assure you if I knew my fate, I would never have taken the Hemlock. As things stand, I am destined to exist in an in-between world. I am neither in your universe nor the afterlife: I am in no-man’s-land.”
“Isn’t there any way you can escape?” asked Tim, who was by now feeling quite sorry for the ghost.
“There is only one way, but it can never happen,” said the ghost.
“Tell me about that,” Tim said.
“The only way I can escape to the afterlife and find peace is if I can save the life of another person. If I do that, this will cancel out my death and destiny wouldn’t have been disturbed. But how can I ever do this? I’m a ghost. I’ve spent over two thousand years trying to think of an answer, but I’ve never been able to find one.”
Tim had a quick and logical mind, and as soon as he heard the last part of the ghost’s story, he began to put two and two together. “I might have an answer,” Tim said. “You could help my mum. She’s very ill at the moment, and I’m frightened she’s going to die.” Tim told the ghost all about his mum and her illness and how life was gradually slipping away from her.
“I’m not sure I could do anything,” said the ghost. “I would have to be sure your mum is dying for a start. I can’t help someone who is just ill.”
“How can we be sure?” Tim asked.
“That’s easy,” said the ghost. “I’ll just go into the future and see what happens.”
“Are you able to do that?”
“Of course, it’s simple. You see you live inside time like all living things. But I exist outside time. I’m not a living being, and therefore I’m not constrained by time. I can move backwards and forwards in time quite freely. The only restriction I have, is I can’t go back past the point of my death. That restriction exists for a reason. If I could do that, then I would try and change things. That’s something you can never do. You can never change the past. Okay, so I’ll go forwards in time right now, and then I’ll come back and tell you what’s going to happen. I’ll be back shortly.” When he returned, he said, “You were right about your mum. I’m afraid she will pass to the afterlife this Friday. That’s three days from now, so we haven’t got much time.”
“Why don’t you go forward in time to a point where they have discovered a cure for this virus and then bring it back for my mum,” Tim suggested.
“It’s not as simple as that. I can’t just bring a cure back from the future and give it to the present. That would change the course of destiny, and that’s forbidden. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.”
“If you can’t find a cure for the virus, then what can you do?”
“Let me see,” said the ghost. “I’ll have to think about this…I wonder? I’ll tell you what. I think I need to see your mum first. When you visit her tomorrow, be sure to take the ring-coin with you. Put it on your finger and make sure you don’t lose it. If you do, I will be gone from your life forever and all hope for your mum will be gone too. Try and get some sleep in the meantime and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
Tim didn’t get much sleep after the ghost left. The news that his mum was sure to die soon brought back the tears and when morning came, he met it with a heavy heart. Tim’s dad tried to cheer him up as they left for Addenbrookes hospital but it was hopeless. Before they went to see his mum, they stopped off at the hospital cafeteria and had some breakfast. After that, they went to the ward all the time hoping she might be a little better when they arrived.
Tim’s mum was in a side room, and she lay in a deep coma. She looked grim. The entire colour had drained from her face, and there was darkness around her eyes. Her lips looked thin, and her cheeks were sunken. Sooner or later Tim knew his dad would have to leave the room to stretch his legs or go to the toilet. He planned to wait for that moment and then to involve the ghost. Tim looked down at his hand to see the ring, and to his horror, he found it was missing. He gasped in a lump of air and turned to his dad. “I’ve lost my ring-coin,” he blurted out.
“That’s the least of our worries son. We can go out and buy you another coin anytime. We can’t go out and buy you another mum,” his dad said.
“You don’t understand,” Tim said. “I must find it.”
“Look, it could be anywhere between here and our house,” his dad said. “You haven’t a hope in hell of finding it.” Then he had an afterthought. “Hang on a minute though. I thought I heard something fall when we were at the counter in the cafeteria. I thought I’d dropped some loose change, but I couldn’t see anything on the floor when I looked.”
On hearing this, Tim leapt up from his seat and ran as fast as he could to the cafeteria. He burst through the door just in time to see a man stoop down by the counter and pick something up. He put it in his pocket. Tim followed the man to his seat and spoke to him. “Did you just pick up a ring at the counter?”
“I might have,” the man said.
“Well, it’s mine,” Tim insisted.
“How do I know you’re telling me the truth? You could just be saying that because you saw me pick it up.”
“Look it is mine, and I must have it back,” Tim pleaded with tears welling in the corners of his eyes.
The man immediately saw the desperation on Tim’s face. “Okay, I was just winding you up. Here’s your ring. There’s no need to get upset.” Tim felt a wave of relief flow through his body as he accepted the ring back from the man. He placed it back on his finger and clenched his hand into a fist as he made his way back to the ward. There was no way he was going to lose that ring again.
After about an hour or so of sitting by his mum’s bed, Tim’s dad left to get some fresh air. Tim moved closer to his mum and held her hand. The hand he held out was the one with the ancient ring on it. As their fingers met a blue haze came out from his hand and entered his mum’s body. He could see it as it moved around, first to her head, then to her chest, then down to her torso and finally to her arms and legs. Then the haze left and returned to the ring. Later that day, back in Tim’s bedroom the ghost returned. “Well?” Tim asked.
“There is a severe problem with your mum’s immune system. That’s the part of the body which would usually fight and kill the virus. At the moment, the knowledge doesn’t exist to correct this problem,” explained the ghost.
“What can we do then? Can you go forward in time to when there is a cure?” Tim asked.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said the ghost. “But don’t build your hopes up. Remember I cannot bring back new knowledge. I have to be very careful about that. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do. I’ll go now, but I’ll come straight back as soon as I know something.”
In the middle of that same night, the ghost returned and awoke Tim. “I come with some good news. About thirty years from now, they discovered that some people’s immune system contained a faulty gene. This gene causes the immune system to ignore specific strains of viruses. In theory, doctors could make synthetic genes which would solve the problem, but that would be a long and complicated process and we haven’t got time for that. However, in the year two thousand two hundred and thirty-four, scientists discovered that a herb known as Astragalus could stimulate this faulty gene and get it working again. If this were to happen with your mum, the immune system would then react to this strain of the virus, and she should start to get better.
“The other good news, is apparently Astragalus has been known about and used by the Chinese to treat illnesses for thousands of years. That means that I haven’t broken any rules by telling you this. This is not new knowledge. It already exists. I can’t believe our luck. The other good news is Astragalus is widely available. There must be a dozen shops in Cambridge alone that sell it. All you have to do is go out and buy some in liquid form and inject it into your mum’s eating tube.”
“Are you sure about this?” Tim questioned.
“I’m positive,” the ghost said, and then he was gone.
In fact, Tim did trust the ghost, but he also knew that he had nothing to lose by giving his mum the Astragalus. As soon as he awoke, he told his dad he had to go out and get something from the shops before they went to the hospital. His dad didn’t understand why his son was so adamant about going to the shops, but he didn’t argue. Tim went straight out and bought the Astragalus, and as soon as he got back, he told his dad they had to go to the hospital straight away.
Once by his mum’s side in the ward, he waited patiently for the opportunity to give the medicine to his mum. When his dad left to get himself a coffee, Tim immediately went to work. When he was sure that no one else was watching, he got the Astragalus from his pocket and then looked for a syringe. There were plenty of them at the bedside. He filled one up with the medicine and injected it straight into his mum’s feeding tube. He did this three times, and then he filled the fourth syringe with clear water to wash away the green stain the Astragalus had made in the tube. Then he hid everything and watched and waited.
After about four hours of desperately waiting and watching for something to happen, he saw the colour gradually begin to return to his mum’s cheeks. After a further two hours, his mum began to choke on the tube in her throat. They called out for a nurse, and someone immediately removed it. By teatime, his mum was fully awake and sitting up in bed. Her first words were, “Why are you two looking so miserable? Anyone would think someone had just died.”
At teatime at home that evening Tim sat down a happy boy. He was delighted of course because his mum was now definitely on the mend, but part of him felt a bit sad. When he arrived home that evening and went to his coin chest, he found that the ring-coin was now missing. His ghost had apparently gone to the afterlife, and he hadn’t had the chance to thank him for all he had done. He didn’t even know the ghost’s name. At tea, his dad said, “Who would have guessed that things would have turned out this way! You would have had to be a wise man to predict the twists and turns of the last few days.”
Tim answered by saying, “Talking of wise men, have you ever heard of a wise man who lived in Athens in Ancient Greece. He was forced to take the poison Hemlock?”
“Yes, of course,” said his dad. “That was Socrates. Most people know about Socrates. Some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. It was a shame he had to end his life though.”
“Yes, it was a shame,” Tim agreed. “But sometimes things work out for the best.