“This is my lucky penny” he said, a gleam dancing in his eye.
The penny in question had attained such an elevated status through a remarkable incident. As a newly married young man at the outbreak of the First World War he had joined up with the hordes of other eager young men keen to fight the Germans in France.
Life in the trenches, far from the heroic idealism they had cradled, was traumatic and cruel. It was his turn to face the hellish hot lead of the machine guns and “go over the top.”
He didn’t last long, and after ploughing a few crazed steps through the blood thickened mud he himself received a deadly bullet to his heart. His young Welsh heart, fresh with the love of his new bride, should have been mortally shattered…but some guardian angel had been playing cards with him the previous evening. He had broken even in the game and hurriedly gathered up his remaining “penny” before retiring to the barracks. He had placed the penny in the jacket pocket of his uniform, which, through some divine chance, hung neatly over the muscle which pumped life into his body. When the bullet thudded into him it first hit this penny and then ricocheted into his shoulder leaving him bloody and maimed yet still very much alive. The “propitiation penny”, like some copper scapegoat, had taken the hit so he might live, return to his young wife and raise up seven children. Surely this was so much more than luck.
The “luck” of the penny seemed to have been used up as life was very hard for them. A semi-invalid because of the war wound he found it hard to get employment and his pride bent like the penny as he saw his family slowly plunge into poverty. As they survived through another war his wife became ill and he wondered how he would bring up the kids should she depart. “Little Alfie” the boy who was mesmerized by the spinning penny, cherished the memory of his mum mending his ragged old coat. As she sowed the cuffs she would push her hand up the sleeve finding the little hand of her son and squeezing it affectionately. Such moments of contact meant a lot to the young boy who, after her premature death, found himself seeking for memories to immortalize intimacy. As his crying eyes saw her buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Ely cemetery, memory was indeed the only treasure left to him. At the tender age of ten he found himself playing a lead role in maintaining the family as head cook and bottle washer. He gave his everything to keep the family together, but as his own Dad’s health declined and the old protected heart finally stopped beating two years later, he faced the cold unknown. His first ride ever in a borrowed motor car took him once again to the windswept grassy plots of Ely where his dad, hero of the war, slipped anonymously into another communal and unmarked poor man’s grave. His tears this time were of grief but also of anger as the bitterness of his poverty and abandon bit deep into him.
A sister ran away on the advice of the church to join the land army, another older brother scorned all responsibility for the younger siblings while the remaining elder brother struggled to cope with his own epilepsy. They had become a derelict family. Whatever assets remained were shared between distant opportunistic relatives – the “lucky penny” was never seen again. The family was separated and little Alfie was sent to a Barnado’s home near London. In the space of an afternoon he was asked to strip off his old clothes – including the warm love-sown coat, and standing naked in preadolescence, was deloused, given a uniform and whisked away to a land of strangers. He owned absolutely nothing…except the growing rebellion in his heart.
At the age of just 12 the weight of the world seemed to be on his shoulders as he struggled to find some meaning to it all. They had been a poor family, but at least they had been a family. He remembered how he used to look down on the “Barnardo Boys” because he felt he was at least better off than they were. But, oh the shame and the pain to find that he was now himself a “Barnardo’s Boy!” He hated it. The five-pound note he received as his part of the family inheritance seemed to add insult to injury. In the middle of one rebellious night, holding the lighted match to the sum total of what his family had left, he watched the flames consume the paper and felt his own heart burning to a dry ash.
“Oh God, I feel so alone!”
he thought, turning his eyes heavenward. His soul hungered, and fuelled by the pain of life, a strange desire to pray invaded his heart.
“Oh God, when I grow up, will you give me my own family? I’d love to be a Dad, and to be the father of boys. In fact I’d like to ask you for twin boys.”
The wind blew through the playground, as the disciplined bell rang out its orders to go in for lunch but somehow things were different. A sense of eternity hung in the air, and almost despite himself, a heart seemed to warm slowly to life again in the inspired environment of a prayer.
The folks were kind enough at the orphanage but the boy could never get over the sense of being a victim of charity which he resented strongly. The resentment boiled over into lots of fighting and shouting and even to an attempted arson of the school!
“We’d better batter the rebellion out of him,” thought the authorities.
So, he found himself learning to box. Unfortunately, he was up against a rather large black man who in a few lethal punches knocked him out. The freezing cold water, which was thrown over him, may have brought him back to his senses but it also gave him pleurisy which nearly sent him to the grave.
So “little Alfie” grew up in the school of hard knocks and became “Alf”. As soon as he could he left “Barnardo’s” to work in a dairy and a shredded wheat factory. One night, walking the streets, homeless, he was taken in by a family who gave him lodgings for the next few years.
Military Service came and went, as did an apprenticeship with the Eastern Electricity Board to become a cable jointer. And the romance! At a dance one evening he saw a young lady and said to his friend in a prophetic premonition.
“The lady I’m going to dance with will be my wife.”
He danced with her and a whole year went by before they met again. They began to go out together. However Alf had another love in his life; not another woman, but a love, or rather a compulsion for gambling. One night at the cinema he told his girlfriend that he had put all their money on a horse.
“It’s bound to win,” he said confidently.
Thankfully it didn’t win, and the loss brought with it the revelation of the utter waste of gambling. The choice was made, no more gambling. His heart was set free to marry.
On the night of the honeymoon, remembering his orphan prayer, he said to his new bride,
“We are going to have twins.”
Three months later his wife realised that she was indeed pregnant. On a visit to the doctor for a check up she was told.
“No, it’s not twins, there is only one heart beating…”
However, Alf, spurred on by a heavenly conviction and a lifetime’s hope proclaimed.
“I’m sure it’s twins!”
Later on the doctors discovered that there were indeed twins and that the one heartbeat they heard was in fact two hearts beating together in unison. However, around the seven month period – and still living in the curse of poverty and ill-health, there were some complications and the new mother needed to give birth prematurely. Two tiny, identical twin boys entered the world weighing no more than a bag of sugar each. Even at the very dawn of their lives death seemed to be trying to smother away the breath of life. One of the boys had great difficulty breathing as his lungs were not fully working whilst the other would not eat, seemingly being too weak to even have the will to live. Both boys were put into incubators with various breathing and feeding tubes.
On hearing the news of the birth, the father rushed to the hospital. Through the corridor window he saw the two little babies under the antiseptic glass of the incubators. Not knowing that they were his children his heart went out to them. He turned to a nurse and asked,
“Where are my boys?”
“Over there!” she replied, pointing to the incubators.
“I’m afraid there’s not much chance of them surviving.”
Because of a religious tradition of fear, a priest was quickly called in so that the two baby boys could be christened. He baptised them there and then in the cold hospital room with the hope that they would be fitted for heaven.
Another life challenge now arose for “young Alfie” who, remembering his previous losses to death, and at the very point of seeing his own life’s prayer coming to fruition, was suddenly face to face with its very destruction.
Quietly, with determination, he bent over to the incubators, opened them up and took the two tiny little hands in his own.
“Live, live!” he willed in the inner recesses of his soul.
A greater sacrament was taking place. A ragged working man in blue overalls, an orphan priest, was baptising his boys into prayer – into hope, into the grip of life. The struggle began. He returned to his run down home and threw himself face down on the floor before God in the agony of prayer. He lay there for three days and nights not eating or drinking but caught up in a longing beyond mere words.
“Oh God! Give me the life of my boys. Let me love them. Let me feed and provide for them. Let me give everything for them, and then when they are old enough to look after themselves, then you can take them. Just give me time to love them now.”
Well, did God answer his prayer? What do you think?
Thankfully yes…since “little Alfie” was the father of the present writer, and his dad, my grandad.
I remember how I got the story. I was explaining to him how I had encountered a wild, overpowering love in my life which had completely changed my world’s direction and was birthing in me a vocation to live on the edge following a man called Jesus. My twin brother was also with me having also experienced the same Holy fire in his life.
We were worried that our Dad, who having come out of his own dire poverty and lack of opportunity, and who was so ambitious for his sons’ futures, would be disappointed at our sudden change and “Damascus road” experiences.
A tear slowly falling from his cheek, he began to unfold his story and prayer.
“I understand now he said, God has not taken you to die but to be a living sacrifice for him.”
I pushed the conversation and asked how he prayed in those difficult three days.
“I went deep” he said, “to the very depths. And there at the very bottom I touched a heart….The heart of God.”
And he concluded:
“I thought God had forgotten.”