DECADE OF GREED: PART ONE.

His wife had wanted spoons for a little neighbourhood gathering. Silly to buy new.

In his lunch break, Lance Gibson took a bus to the old shopping strip where there was a Salvation Army shop as well as an RSPCA op-shop. The trip cost him nothing – it was all on his monthly pass – and it made a nice break from the ritual of eating his sandwiches in the windswept plaza outside the offices of Grose International.

The Salvation Army shop had hundreds of pieces of cutlery, even whole sets. He did not need a whole set, surely. And some of those sets were modern, with brittle plastic handles.

At last he settled on three dessert spoons in excellent condition. At the counter, he contemplated a Sheaffer fountain pen in a glass cabinet. But, no, he had an old Parker pen and – though he often discoursed to colleagues on the advantages of such traditional items as tie clips and fountain pens – he never used his Parker.

Lance sat at the bus stop and ate his lunch, which consisted of a devon sandwich with finely chopped lettuce and a mandarin. He was able to sit out in wind and sun thanks to an early acquired habit of dressing his hair with a dab of Brylcream and combing it back over a balding spot in the middle of his scalp. In fact, Lance had definite ways of doing most things, and was often bewildered by others’ lack of method, or of “nous”, as he called it.

On the bus, he decided to unwrap and examine the spoons. Two were identical and appeared to have no blemishes. The third, of an older and more rounded design, was a bit marked on the handle. Upon examining the handle an inscription caught his eye: Sterling 925/1000.

For many, this would mean little. But to Lance Gibson, long term employee of an international accounting firm, night school lecturer in General Economics, it was a startling find.

The year was 1979 and the month was December. In all the world, there was no silver to be had in quantity. Someone had been buying it all: Americans, perhaps, or Saudi sheiks. Lance suspected China, as he had long been suspicious of the Chinese. The price of silver had increased many times over in recent months.

Lance weighed the spoon in his hand.

That night, he gave Mrs. Gibson two spoons. He suggested two might be enough, particularly as they matched. Mrs. Gibson saw little point in the matching, but knew there was less point in trying to persuade her husband of the need for more spoons.

Next day, Lance went back to the Salvation Army shop and fossicked through all their cutlery. He tried not to spend too long peering at markings, and felt embarrassed when another customer waited edgily for him to finish. All the marks were either “Genuine Stainless” or “EPNS”. Ordinary people – “financial civilians” as he called them in his classes – would not have known, but Lance was aware that EPNS indicated just a thin coating of silver, whereas sterling was 925 parts of silver per thousand parts. Once it may not have mattered – but in 1979!

No doubt, the people who sorted goods for charities were checking hallmarks now, as they should. As Lance left the shop in disappointment, it occurred to him that he should have bought a couple more spoons for his wife. Stainless steel for preference, taste free and durable. The RSPCA shop was not far. Not only could he buy the spoons there, Lance could search through their cutlery for hallmarks.

He found three spoons which were stainless steel and marked “Made in Japan”. Lance had always said that if you gave Japs time, they could make anything as well as anybody. Apart from the spoons, he found nothing of interest.

When he went to the counter to pay, however, his eye was caught by a metal tea strainer on display under the glass-fronted counter. He asked to look at it. Sure enough, it was marked Sterling and was stamped with a lion and other things.

“Um, nice little thing. How much for cash?”

“Well, it’s antique. And straight silver, you know. Silver these days…”

“Oh, certainly…but does it have a price?”

“I’ve been told not to sell it till they review it. We may have to pass it on to antique auctioneers. With all this kerfuffle over silver…Wait, I’ll call the manager from out the back.”

A heavy elderly lady seemed to take forever to shuffle her way to the counter. She had what looked like animal fur through her clothes. The aroma of cat was noticeable. After her assistant explained the situation, the manager shook her head.

“We have to put the animals first here. Do you know what silver goes for right now? Over thirty dollars an ounce! I don’t know if that’s American or Australian dollars…but I’d be doing the wrong thing by the cats and dogs if I didn’t charge you at least, mmm, ninety-five dollars. I wouldn’t blame you if you walked out of here and never came back, but with this silver thing happening all over the world…”

“Ninety-five!”

“Of course, we’d throw in the spoons for that price.”

***

After some difficulties, he had been able to persuade the manager to take a cheque.

When Lance left the shop he felt a touch “nervy”, to use the word he gave to his emotional lapses. He was also experiencing a second youth as the new thoughts and ambitions poured through his brain. Wasn’t it in the Shakespeare they made you study? Each man will find himself at a crossroads, a tidemark, a Rubicon at some point. Lance had sometimes wondered if he had missed that special moment of decision, or it had missed him. No. It had merely been delayed.

Australia was full of silver, in many forms, and silver was now no longer the poor man’s gold. Silver was the smart man’s gold. Some were aware, most were not. Silver lay in houses, garages and shops all over Sydney. Every ounce represented thirty dollars now, and probably one hundred dollars in the near future. The mines of Potosí and Broken Hill – and wherever else they dug silver – could not meet the needs of a world destitute of silver.

It was only with difficulty that Lance stopped himself from ringing in sick that afternoon so he could comb second-hand stores in adjacent suburbs. He knew he would need to move quickly, before the word was general and even ordinary Australians – the financial civilians – had learned to read hallmarks and begun checking their shelves and their drawers.

Exactly how much money did he have in savings?

***

“Thought I’d pick up some more spoons for you, love. Stainless steel, Japanese. You know, show a Jap how to make a thing, and after a while…”

When Lance gave the spoons to his wife that evening, he did not mention his other purchase. Since he had an old steel locker in the garage, he could store all his investment silver there, beginning with the spoon and tea strainer.

On the next working day he was ready with cash – for ease of negotiation, as he told himself. There was a large second-hand emporium reachable in lunch hour and he headed there as soon as one o’clock came round.

He entered the premises in as casual a manner possible, and tried to appear interested in the general stock before locating the antique cutlery, which was in a small container right on the counter. As he fumbled through the box, he could scarcely contain his excitement. It was full of hallmarked silver, lying loose and unticketed. Affecting impatience as well as indifference, he informed the owner of the shop, a flabby and elderly man who seemed to pant for every breath, that he needed a stock of old-style used cutlery. Could he buy the box on the counter?

The owner said nothing, but picked up the box and carried it to an old fashioned scale on a low bench behind him. He weighed the box, wheezed alarmingly several times, then turned to Lance.

“Are you ready for this?”

“For…for what?”

“This is all sterling silver in this box, old mate. You know what silver is worth now?”

“Nnn…nooo. Well sort of…”

“About thirty dollars a bloody ounce. I’m not making it up, old mate. Read the news. But I wouldn’t blame you if you turned on your heels and ran out of my shop – even if I gave you a good price on this box…”

“I see.”

“And get this! If you came back next week or even tomorrow I can’t guarantee that someone won’t have bought the whole lot. That’s how crazy this silver thing is getting. Like I said, old mate, if you ran out of my shop right now I wouldn’t blame you. World’s gone bloody mad…”

***

Had the owner of the shop guessed Lance’s game from the start?

Never mind. Lance, after some difficulties, had persuaded him to take a check along with all the cash he was carrying. The price was high, horribly so, for a load of smart man’s gold. Curiously, after transporting the load of cutlery home in a borrowed airlines bag, and depositing it in the locker, Lance was overwhelmed by a sense of his collection’s inadequacy. There seemed suddenly to be no point in a small stock of silver. What was the headline of that Time article about modern agriculture? The article he showed to his sleepy Tuesday class? Get Big or Get Out.

Lance needed to show nerve at his crossroads, his tidemark, his Rubicon. Lance would have to fill that locker with silver.

***

After some weeks of frustration due to Christmas closures of opportunity shops and the like, Lance decided to try his luck with garage sales. A couple of wasted Saturdays only served to make Mrs. Gibson vaguely suspicious. Lance had never been that type, but his odd absences and general unease were noticed.

With the return to normal work routine, Lance decided to try a what he called a “probing” visit to Hoys Currency and Bullion. It was rather too far from work for a lunch hour, so a bogus dental appointment was needed to allow the extra time to get to and from North Sydney. It annoyed Lance that the trip would not be payable by his monthly pass.

When he made his way into the premises, he had little idea of what he was doing there. Specialists like Hoys were unlikely to offer bargains on silver out of ignorance. In fact, apart from one spoon, nobody had sold him any bargains in silver. But perhaps Lance belonged here, rather than in old shops smelling of dust, camphor and mould. “Big league, Lance, big league. Get big or get out.” He was actually murmuring to himself.

There were a few display cabinets and a security service window. Lance approached a very lean and angular man who seemed the wrong height and shape for the small transfer slot at the base of his window. His spidery hands were crossed as he leaned forward and peered at a now intimidated Lance over his spectacles.

“Help you there, sir?”

“Er, well, I’d just like to make an inquiry about acquiring silver.”

“As coin, bullion…?”

“Well…as both. So long as it’s silver value, not, you know, numismatic.”

Lance felt rather pleased with himself for saying “numismatic”. The man behind the glass seemed a little pleased also.

“Hm. You’re aware, of course, of the current high price of silver?”

“Absolutely. But I also know it’s based on a real scarcity…world-wide.”

“You seem to have your finger on the pulse. I can’t, of course, recommend a speculation based on broad, you know, international factors…”

“Of course not.”

“However, we do have a large stock of pre-1946 Australian silver coins which have no rarity or numismatic value. You probably know that those all had a silver content of 92.5.”

“Well, I…I knew it was something like that.”

“We are presently selling those coins in bulk at current silver value only – with a standard transaction fee, of course.”

“I see…I see….”

“Can’t guarantee adequate stocks in this buyer’s climate. Someone could walk through that door as we speak…”

“Of course…of course…”

***

Fortunately, Lance had been able to get the bank cheque in good time, considering it was lunch hour. After returning to Hoys and paying, he took delivery of the heavy bags of coin through a side door. Not knowing how to transport the bags by public transport, he decided to hail a cab on the street outside Hoys. This petty but unaccustomed expense made his heart pound more than the thousands he had just spent, but he muttered: “Big league, big league now…” He was relieved that the North Sydney police station was in clear view as he waited.

On hailing the cab, Lance had been unwilling to put the bags in the boot of the vehicle, but the driver had insisted. Each time it stopped, Lance turned to make sure nobody was somehow tampering with the rear of the cab. This caused the driver to peer suspiciously at Lance through the rear vision.

It occurred to Lance that the bags would be a terrible encumbrance at work. Explanations might be needed. Wasn’t this Mrs. Gibson’s Meals-on-Wheels afternoon? Why not take the bags directly home and still be back at work in reasonable time. He baulked momentarily at the extra expense, then directed the driver to his home.

On arriving, Lance considered getting the driver to wait for him while he transferred the bags to the locker. But the inquisitive cabbie might notice what he was doing. Moreover, he could use his bus pass to get back to work. Now that he had made his big play, it was time for Lance to get back to the piecemeal economies which were, after all, the foundations of the wealth he had just invested.

He paid the driver and stood on the curb till the cab disappeared. Even then, he waited a moment longer. But now he felt exposed to the eyes of neighbours.  He made his way to the garage and opened the locker to deposit the bags.

Just as he heaved the last of the three bags into the locker, there was a noise behind him. Swivelling about, he came face to face with his wife.

“Lance! You! In a taxi!”

He regained his composure quickly and continued what he was doing.

“Just a moment, luv, while I get this bag in place…Isn’t this your Meals-On-Wheels afternoon?”

“Oh, Gail swapped with me so she can go to the Robert Goulet concert at Roselands.”

“Robert Goulet? That prawn!”

“But what’s all this…the taxi…and these bags…that cutlery?”

“Well, it’s a bit of a surprise I’ve been preparing for you. Sort of an investment. Well, very much an investment. I didn’t want to tell you about it yet – not till the whole silver thing was in the headlines. But I’ve been amassing silver. Nothing below 92% pure silver…”

“Oh, yes, everyone knows it’s over thirty dollars an ounce these days.”

“Everyone? I doubt that. There are a lot of what I call financial civilians out there. Like the people who sold me this spoon for ten cents. Where is it? Ah, here it is! Look! Ten cents for sterling silver!”

“You mean you’ve been buying all this from around the place at rock bottom? All this time?”

“Well, when you say rock bottom…Let’s just say I’ve been one of the under-the-radar investors.”

“And those times you took off all day…”

“Garage sales. Mind you, they’re no goldmine. Investing in silver is no…what are you crying for?”

“Oh, it’s just that..I’m so proud to have a husband who’s so brilliant…and who spends his Saturdays…oh, I don’t know why I’m blubbering!’

And Mrs. Gibson gave her husband his longest and hardest hug in twenty years.

***

The tide of Lance’s enthusiasm ebbed. For a while, he contemplated his silver with satisfaction. Then it occurred to him that he would need several lockers full of silver to become truly rich, even at fifty dollars an ounce. And how did one sell silver privately, when it was in the form of spoons, coins and the like? Lance had never sold anything. In that regard, he was a commercial civilian. Should he invest in some kind of smelter? But he wasn’t handy with practical jobs. What if he actually reduced the value of what he had? And the cost!

The locker remained locked. When Mrs. Gibson mentioned their investment he merely looked shrewd and winked.

Then came those two bills resulting from their disaster with the fig tree. One bill from the tree surgeon and one from the plumber.

***

It was late on a Friday afternoon when Lance managed to get himself to Hoys before closing. Once again, he had been forced to travel where his bus pass was not valid.

The same tall man was behind the counter.

“Help you, sir?”

“Yes, you might remember me from a few weeks ago?”

“Certainly. What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s just that I’ve had a bit of a financial emergency. A fig tree root got into a drain…”

“Oh, worst thing!”

“Really, I should have factored all this in. You wouldn’t think I actually teach finance and related things…”

“No, no…I could tell you have a finger on the pulse.”

“Well, much as I’d like to hold on to my silver…”

“Silver! You haven’t heard?”

“Heard?”

“The Hunt brothers. Sons of Nelson Bunker Hunt. They were the ones buying all the silver, with some Arabs. They missed a margin call, late yesterday, our time!”

“But, I really need to convert…I’ve got this locker full of silver. There’s cutlery, coins…everything sterling…”

The man behind the window shook his head as he gave little helpless shrugs. Lance waited and waited.

“Look, I would understand perfectly if you turned and marched out of here and never came back. But, I have to tell you, it was a margin call for one billion dollars! Come Monday, they’ll be bringing silver in wheelbarrows trying to sell it. It’s that bad. I dunno…I dunno…Look, if you can get that load of silver here by mid-morning tomorrow…Have you got a friend with a ute? I dunno, I wouldn’t blame you if you turned tail and we never heard from you again. But the absolute best I can do in these circumstances….”

***

Lance paid the bills, though he needed to borrow heavily to supplement the money Hoys gave him for the contents of his locker. He did not mention the debt to Mrs. Gibson. When she referred to his silver dealings he would merely look shrewd and wink. Once, when she pressed him for details, he said: “I got out of that quick, same way I got into it. And don’t forget that I may have a tax angle or two…or not! Wheels within wheels, old girl. Wheels within wheels.”

When discussing this time in his life, he declared that he had taken a great lesson from it. He would never again plant a tree with an active root system near plumbing. And he would discourage any other householder from making the same mistake.

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About mosomoso

Growing moso bamboo on the mid-coast of NSW, Australia.
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