Paper Bag Treasure

We had recently moved to a better part of London to ensure that my brother and I could attend a decent school. Dad was a London cabbie, the kind that drove one of those large black London taxis in the era before the Uber invasion. He would usually drive off early in the morning and return home well after dark. After dinner, I remember that he and my mother would frequently close the frosted glass door to the kitchen and talk earnestly in hushed, worried tones. I sometimes sat silently at the top of the stairs, straining to catch any intelligible words that seeped through the kitchen door. When I did hear them, they usually had something to do with money: bank, bob, savings, tanner, tip, quid, fiver. The down payment on the house had exhausted my parents’ savings and the mortgage was a heavy burden, so my father’s tips determined our daily solvency.

These financial worries made a lasting impression on me. It was as if my new school, my new friends, the new house, all could disappear at a stroke. However, one evening my slipper fell down the stairs and as I skipped down to retrieve it, I felt a small lump under the carpet I had not noticed before. After carefully pulling out a flat package wrapped in a brown paper bag, I tore it open to find a thick wad of five pound notes, a king’s ransom to a seven-year-old boy with a vivid imagination and a penchant for adventure stories.

It was, I speculated, accidentally left there by the previous owners, maybe the proceeds of white slave trading. Or the sale of goods on the black market. A grin spread over my face and a glow suffused my body as I imagined the delight on my parents’ face when I announced that I had discovered a hidden treasure, the solution to our family’s problems.

I leapt to the floor and rushed into the kitchen breathless with excitement, screaming, “Look what I found!” and threw the paper bag onto the table. My mum and dad looked at the bag, looked at each other, looked at me, and then burst into laughter. The money was simply Dad’s earnings for the week, tucked away until he had time to go and deposit them in the bank.

I have never forgotten that things are not always what they seem and that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. I also have never completely shaken off the fear of losing everything. It has shaped my life subtly in different ways. I regularly go backpacking in the wilderness for days on end, not only for solitude and enjoyment, but also to prove just how little I need to survive. I practice stoicism to inure myself against unforeseen losses, and try to arrange personal and business affairs to limit risk while still allowing for upside surprises. Sometimes I still sit on the stairs and listen.

Malcolm Greenhill at Malcolm’s Corner


59 thoughts on “Paper Bag Treasure

  1. A fantastic piece. Easily the best of the series. I will pass on backpacking in the wilderness, though. I work a fairly tedious job so that my family doesn’t have to sleep in a tent. If we’re ever sleeping in a tent something went horribly wrong.

    I have a great story about a London cabbie. Too long for a comment section. Maybe I’ll make a post out of it one day.

  2. Reblogged this on Malcolm's Corner and commented:
    I have never guest-posted on another site before, but you don’t refuse the Holistic Wayfarer, particularly when she invites you to write on a subject you are meant to know something about, in my case ‘money’. I hope you enjoy this vignette from my childhood. When you have finished reading it, make sure you take some time to look around and sample some of the impressive writing on A Holistic Journey.

  3. Nice short piece. It is comforting to know that you are capable of surviving on the bare minimum. Somedays I play a game with myself too and only put 20 dollars in my wallet to see how long it will last!

    • Thank you. 20 dollars might not last long in San Francisco but playing resilience games like this are definitely good for us. Life is all about disorder so the more we learn to adapt and thrive on it, the happier we will be.

      • Poverty has less to do with a deficiency of material resources than it does with the conditions that make a modest and decent life possible, namely safety, self-respect and self-fulfillment. If these three factors are in place a lack of money is no more than a small inconvenience.

  4. A great story Malcolm and easy to see how those hushed conversations had such an impact on your thinking about security. I love your way of going out into the wilderness to see how little you can survive with.

  5. Malcolm,
    You are a good writer. I could feel the unspoken anxiety of a child wondering what hushed conversations behind closed doors meant. It is interesting to me that the worrisome burdens we carried as children were sometimes heavier than the ones we carry as adults. I admire the way you so skillfully closed the story in a way that makes the reader realize that the child within was not buried long ago, but remains near by. Good!

  6. We carry along in this journey of life the voices from every age. While the lines of age etch the face and the weight of time causes everything to sag, behind the eyes there lurks the imp and foolish grin that shares secret jokes and the knowledge of the ghastly–real or imagined. You did a superb job of painting them both!

    • Thank you janjoy52. I’m glad you enjoyed the post although I did wonder for a moment whether you were actually referring to my face sagging and grinning foolishly, but finally decided you meant this as a metaphor for the different stages of life.

  7. A very enjoyable read Sir, and one I can very easily relate to. I also set myself small “reminder tasks” just to make sure that I still have what it takes to get by without all the extra bells and whistles from time to time. And as far as checking out the great reading available here on our host’s wonderful site, well Sir, as they say, “you’re preaching to the choir.” Lol.

  8. Malcolm, you know I found this piece heartwarming and appreciated the layers. I hadn’t realized you hail from the UK. It is so nice learning more about the company I keep. Also precious sharing in your vulnerability, which was there when you were a boy but I sense you still push against it with the offensive defense you put up against the possibility of detrimental change. Your last comment gave me food for thought and I’m so glad you’re here. Ah-ah-ah…I did say no more thanks.


  9. My Father came out of the depression of the 30s and knew how to work of the limited funds available in that era. He taught his children an appreciation for the fact there are no free lunches in life, you have to earn your keep. I wonder if that is fully appreciated in the era we now live in?

    • Ian, I’ll resist getting on my soap box to answer this one. However, I will say that the children of the 1930’s depression did not forget the lessons they learned from their parents. However their children did. In the U.S. it takes about 80 years for the rot of complacency to set in. Every 80 years or so there is a general reset, a cleansing of the cumulative mistakes that have been made. Approximately 80 years before the Great Depression we had the American Civil War and 80 years before that the War of Independence. As you have probably noticed we are overdue for another reset. Possibly it has already started.

  10. Malcolm, I identified very closely with the small child you were, listening at the top of the stair. I remember similar moments. A well-written, honest piece. Thank you.

    And you’re right – Diana is an influential voice in the blogging community.

  11. Malcom I enjoyed your story, Finding the money must have felt so good only to be let down. I grew up in a family with nine kids and often heard my parents say God will provide when the money was low. We never went without, but it does shape you like you say. I use to listen in on their conversations too and sometimes wish that I hadn’t. When I overheard them say things like we only have six dollars in the bank I would worry for weeks, yet we survived and thrived.

    • “I use to listen in on their conversations too and sometimes wish that I hadn’t.”

      Yes, as good little children that is the downside of listening in, but it is also our redeeming feature. I don’t suppose the NSA ever feels that way 🙂

  12. Wonderful post, Malcolm. I’m really enjoying learning about everyone’s (posts and commenters!) early experiences with money, and seeing the commonalities in our stories. For all our unique upbringings, we seem to share the same fears of losing it all, ‘not enough’, survival etc. And we deal with those fears in such interesting and diverse ways…like wilderness backpacking for days on end! I lean towards the other end of the spectrum haha. 🙂 Thanks, Aleya.

    • Thank you Aleya. I guess some people deal with their fear of losing everything by going out and spending what they do have, attempting to throw denial in the face of fate. It’s an interesting response 🙂

  13. An incredible piece of writing (Malcom is one of my favorite writers…writes beautifully)…and writing that brings emotion and reflection is great art. There is much I can nod my head to in this piece, but the one that makes me nod my head and smile is simply “…also to prove just how little I need to survive.” A true understanding of how to live a life.

    This post also fits in so well with the Holistic Wayfarer’s works and blog. A gem.

    • I’m never going to London. Yikes! I get lost on spacious CA land WITH my GPS. So interesting, how status and class append themselves to all sorts of things. I didn’t know the black taxi has become a symbol of the middle class.

      “Over three years, Matt McCabe logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and foot within the city, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, while studying to become a London taxi driver.”

      Amazing, the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary.

  14. As I get older, Malcolm, one of my biggest lessons is that rarely things are not what they seem. And most of those lessons have come about the hard way. Your great post has reminded me to stay fluent, or to attempt to stay fluent with what comes across my way. I find it so interesting to read and hear *why* folks spend time in the wilderness (other than solitude and enjoyment) I love hearing reason outside the obvious. For I too spend days on end in the wilderness, for a multitude of reasons. For those who grew up listening on the stairs, I don’t think we ever actually grow out of it. Wonderful post.

  15. Thank you Tahira, from one stair listener to another. Few people can spend an extended period of time in the wilderness without undergoing some form of personal transformation. It’s easy to scoff at talk about ‘mystical nature’, but one of the most compelling things about nature is that it seems to suggest the existence of order and meaning and when the backpacker returns to normal life, among other things, he or she often carries back the thought that life is not quite as chaotic as it once seemed to be.

  16. I love how you describe where your imagination went when you stumbled on the bag of money.

    A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing our fears of losing everything. In the past, circumstances had jolted each of us into situations in which we lost basic essentials, and determined what was really important to us for subsistence. I said that I’m glad for the times when I backpacked; they assured me that I could get by with very little. You remind me that I’ve done much more than that to give myself a feeling of security: I also donate food and clothing to the poor. It reassures me that such items will be available to me if I ever need them again.

    You also remind me of my most vivid childhood dreams: not of living in palaces and mansions, but of using found materials to build a house in the woods, and living off the land. I’ve read a lot about doing so, learned and used many of the skills that I would need, but never actually did so for more than a long weekend.

    May you always experience a perspective of living in prosperity.

    • Just love the thoughtful feedback, WG, esp your “most vivid childhood dreams: not of living in palaces and mansions, but of using found materials to build a house in the woods”. Was the Little House series something you enjoyed as a kid?

      I had an epiphany reading some of the stories to my son a few yrs ago, realized why they sounded so familiar. The tales of hard pioneer life, of the matter-of-fact (even cheerful) labor from sun up to sun down bore a striking resemblance to the story of Asian immigrants. To most immigrants but they resonated with the experiences of my childhood and my parents. This is a digressio,n but the reason I am endeared to your idyllic dream. =)

My Two Gold Cents in the Holistic Treasury

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