She rummaged through the drawer, her panic increasing incrementally. It wasn’t here either. She had looked everywhere, at least in the most obvious places. Places where she could have put it, inadvertently, unthinkingly. Now, she was starting to look in the silly places. Refrigerator, shoe closet, paperwork drawer, airing cupboard. She wasn’t old enough to have lost her marbles yet, but she certainly seemed to have lost her precious pearls.
Walter’s pearls. The ones he’d bought her in Hong Kong when they were posted there. In their early, heady days of marriage when gifts, little and large, punctuated their idyllic existence. She had worn them frequently at first, her natural elegance enhanced by the soft sheen of the Akoya pearls that encased her lovely long neck. Then, as age began its ravages on her face and body, she wore them less. Walter was home less too. It all seemed pointless after a while. After no children and far too many postings, and whispers of concubines.
Still, within them lay wrapped her dreams and her memories, and she couldn’t bear to part with them. Even when the medical costs grew to the extent where most of her jewellery was swallowed up. Even as they downsized and Walter’s chairlift absorbed the last of their savings, she’d held on to them. They were a surviving symbol of the happy future she had envisaged as a giddy, young bride. And now, they were gone.
She looked at the mess strewn around her, and sighed. It would take far too long to put right, and in her frame of mind, all she wanted was to retreat to her little garden, and finish that bottle of Pinot Grigio she had chilling. The setting sun was casting an orange glow into her room, and she looked down at her shaky hands willing herself to be calm. She would return to her search tomorrow, and the many endless tomorrows that would inevitably follow.
The first sip was a delicious invitation into oblivion. She knew she was in that twilight zone where just one more step would lead her into full blown alcoholism. But after years of disciplined self deprivation, she no longer cared. She looked around at her well tended garden, with its neat hedgerows, and potted plants that housed a profusion of colours, and smiled sadly. There was never anyone to share it with. After Walter, she had licked her wounds far too long. Her self inflicted hibernation had lost her the few friends she had. Now, except for the hawk faced harridan that lived at number 10, she never came across anyone in her quiet cul-de-sac.
The wind had a slight chill to it, and as it passed over her, she pulled her shawl closer. Smoke wafted over the fence, and she heard a wheezy cough. Cyril? Cecil? What was his name, she wondered. The reclusive widower that lived next door.
“Hello?”, she called out, surprising herself.
There was a pause, and then a soft Scottish burr answered her equally hesitantly, “Hello?”
“I…I was wondering if you’d like to join me for a glass of wine?”, she said, once again surprised at her own temerity.
After two beats, the wonderment tinged response, “Yes, I would very much like that.”
She ran her fingers through her hair, and quickly tidied the cushions on the sofa, while mentally kicking herself for not applying any lipstick.
She yanked open the door on the first knock, and he stood there with his hand still raised, the other hand leaning heavily on the cane. She quickly took in the patrician nose, the grey hair, the tweed jacket that had seen better days, and smiled at him, slightly embarrassed at her open appraisal.
“Do come in”, she turned to let him pass, at once noticing the limp.
In the garden she learnt his name really was Stuart, and that his wife had passed ten years ago. His sons and their families ignored him except for Christmas, when he was passed around like a well used toy between them. He spoke without rancour, and she listened in sympathy.
“Martin lives fifteen minutes away. He is a GP. A very busy man. He drops in on me, when he can. He doesn’t tell Sue. Sometimes he stays for a wee dram.” His eyes lit up as he spoke of his younger son. Then he stopped, and looked at her. Really looked at her. “And what about you, little lady? Why do you hide in here all day and all night? Why aren’t you about, painting the town red?”
She laughed at him. “How old do you think I am Stuart? My days of painting anything red are long gone.”
“Ach noh! To me you are a spring chicken, too pretty to be gardening all day.”
And drinking all night, she surmised from the way his eyes flicked to the nearly empty bottle and away.
“Would you like a refill?”
She returned with a bowl of peanuts, her rumbling stomach reminding her that dinner time had come and gone. Somehow, she didn’t mind. This easy camaraderie was filling a different hunger.
He spoke of his youth in Inverness. She told him of her travels around the world. He talked of his hopes of Scotland finally gaining independence, the referendum he hoped would pass in his lifetime. She described to him the hustle and bustle, the smell and the chaos of the Bombay fish markets. He talked of his beloved wife, Jane. She topped up their glasses, thought briefly of Walter, and spoke no more.
The crickets came out, and the moths circled the lamp in the garden furiously. They sat together in silence. Till he reached across and put his hand over hers. The feel of his leathery palm dislodged something inside her. Her tears dampened the front of his jacket. Her gasping sobs interspersed with hiccupping sorries. Out came every worry, every silly and sad concern that jostled for space inside her. The mislaid pearls, the mislaid self esteem.His hand patted her back, smoothed her hair, muttered quiet soothing words she couldn’t make out, till she felt herself melt into him, reaching out in the darkness, towards his lips. He pushed her back gently.
“I must leave now, m’dear. It is late.”
She nodded, abashed, aroused, ashamed.
He let himself out. She staggered upstairs to bed, sleeping fitfully, her dreams a jagged landscape, peopled with smoke and pearls and a wistful heaviness.
The next morning, she stumbled downstairs, in search of water, the thudding behind her eyes, threatening to reach epic proportions. A note was placed carefully on her sideboard. The handwriting on the note was unfamiliar, almost old fashioned.
Her befuddled mind could not understand how her pearls sat next to the note, so innocuously, giving nothing away.
Momentarily distracted by the noise next door, she thrust the note and her necklace into her dressing gown pocket, and went out to investigate.
Paramedics, police, the ambulance and a multitude of people were traipsing in and out of Stuart’s house. Alarmed, she ran forward, to be briskly informed she couldn’t enter. Only family was allowed. A visibly shocked, pale faced man walked out and spoke to the police officer. Martin, she guessed. She called out. “What’s happened? Is Stuart alright?”
He looked at her, and looked away, as though she didn’t matter. She supposed she really didn’t.The hawk faced woman from number 10, came over to her conspiratorially.
“He’s dead. That’s his son. Found him this morning. Heart attack they are saying.”
“Oh!”, her sharp intake of breath made the shrew pause briefly in her narrative.
With eager relish she continued. “Been dead a week at least, they say. Poor sod!”
The ground swam up to meet her.
Hours later, revived by the paramedics, and treated for shock, she remembered the note.
It lay crumpled in her pocket. She smoothened it out, pulling her pearls out alongside. It simply said:
Thank you for last night. This should cover it.
The pearls sat in her hand like a coiled serpent. Slowly she let them drop to the floor.
©2014 Poornima Manco