NWR Issue 91

The Jeweller

‘We’d better kneel down then.’

Mo grumbled as she looked for some clear space in the middle of the floor. You could see the shape of her horseshoe brooch through her jumper. It was Maundy Thursday and Mo had called round to get help, as her husband was at auction. Mo sold knickers, bloomers, vests and aprons by day. She’d tried lately to keep up with the fashion by stocking the occasional tiger-print bra or snaking a purple feather boa around the flanelette and Y-fronts. But it was by night that she made her money. She did ‘nest clearance’, as she put it: pecking like a magpie over the pickings of empty old houses, clearing them out and sorting out their relics into piles for sale or burning. Every week she’d sift through past lives and tidy them away into black bags and auction lots. Mari often went along to keep Mo company and in return she got first refusal on clothes and jewellery.

Tonight the women were in a house high above the harbour. Below them seagulls strutted with sour faces through the empty harbour’s black shale. The rain was slapping testily at the windows of the old Georgian house.

Hands clasped, the pair prayed on the carpet in the darkness until their knees ached.

‘Watch out, now.’

There being no electricity, Mo got up and lit a lamp. She pulled Mari to her feet.

Every nook of the cavernous living room was crammed, with just a sheep’s track picking its way through. It stank too: when it had got too much to bear, Mari had muffled her mouth in her scarf, making her brow bead up with sweat. Dozens of empty sugar packets were in one corner; in another, plastic carrier bags of milk bottles.

The light flashed in owl eyes, their owner perched in a cabinet by the fireplace. Mari felt coldness clutching her stomach. Mo marked its case with a chalk cross to show her husband he should put it in the van for the auction. She marked a corner cupboard in the same fashion. Mari went over to the fireplace. She got out her own little torch and switched it on. She heard rustling from the chimney: probably a bird nesting up there. On the mantelpiece were black and white photographs. A girl riding a bike, her hair done up in a Marcel wave and ribbon. Her check blouse was knotted at the waist, and her long legs were working the pedals to speed her past happily while she looked back laughing. A soldier. A wedding photo. The same woman on the beach in middle age. Another of her sixtieth birthday. She hadn’t had time to have children. That was why it had been left to strangers such as Mari and Mo to comb through her life.

She felt some affinity with this girl and ran a finger along her face. An old longing awakening in her; while Mo’s back was turned, she shoved the picture into her pocket. She smoothed the flap down closed and switched off her torch.

‘Poor old thing,’ Mo muttered, ‘kept everything!’ She put out the lamp. ‘Come on.’

The pair went upstairs in the dark, pausing now and then to let Mo cough up some of the smoker’s tar pooling in the pit of her lungs the past fifty years. There were telltale squares of darker wallpaper indicating a sly neighbour must have called in to steal the more valuable pictures.

‘Didn’t Dafydd say he was coming to help?’ Mo gasped.

‘Busy, suppose,’ Mari shrugged.

‘Oh,’ Mo groaned, shifting her weight onto one knee. They waited for Mo to get her breath back and pull herself up by the banister. The days were getting longer: the top floor let in more light. Mo crept into the big bedroom and lit the lamp, while Mari went into the smaller one and opened the curtains. A nightie was still on the bed and the blankets had been thrown back.

The old woman must have slept in this bed, not in the double. Mari snooped in the dressing table. The familiar guilt of going through someone’s things never eased, even though she’d been at it for years. She riffled through the old tights and hankies. The bottom drawer was laid with white tablecloths – for best – with an ivy border, expensive blankets and hand-embroidered aprons. They hadn’t ever been used: there’d clearly been no occasion which counted as special enough. A yellowing packet of confetti, button-up leather gloves. A lace collar and a white box. Mari opened it carefully, listening to Mo’s chalk scratching next door. Wartime love letters on official notepaper, a diamond dress ring, a blue brooch and a string of pearls. Nothing especially interesting. She made sure she shut all the drawers and drew one blanket back over the bed. A glass of water was still at the bedside, bubbles sticking stubbornly to its base.

She opened the wardrobe’s heavy door, keeping her palm flat on the wood. Frocks, suits. A long fur coat. She pulled it out slightly into the light. It seemed brand new, the healthy fur shining.

‘My God!’ Mo cried. Mari jumped and closed the wardrobe. Mo had money: a fistful of notes. ‘Serious cash here!’ Mo showed her a coat with its sleeves sewn shut: she shoved the money into her pocket. “Don’t give me that look,’ she reproached Mari, ‘nobody knows it’s here and the grandkids are always on about wanting something or another. Just a nice little bonus, this is.’

‘Asking for bad luck, you are,’ Mari warned.

‘Don’t get much good luck anyway,’ Mo mumbled, taking her light with her out of the room.

Mari was looking at the lumpy bed with its blanket pulled tight. She knew it happened all the time. She herself had bought jewellery from a man without realising he was an undertaker who had taken it from the body. When she’d challenged him later, his excuse was: no use for jewels underground, showing his ignorance of where they came from in the first place. She felt the cold skim her hot cheeks, and followed her friend downstairs.

They always finished up in the kitchen, with a ritual of tea from Mo’s flask, and biscuits. It was dark and old-fashioned. The lamplight caught the case of an old clock in the corner which had slowed in its tracks and stopped altogether. Mo crossed it with chalk and checked it over. Mari switched on her torch and the pair gasped. The remains of supper was still on the table, dirty cutlery and all. Mo shook her head. The food had gone rotten black. Mo reached over and tidied the knife and fork onto the plate as they should be placed after a meal.

‘The last supper,’ Mari said, lifting her head and smiling sadly.

When they were in the porch, getting ready to go out into the rain, Mari didn’t notice Mo stuffing the notes back into the folds of a coat hanging up there. The door shut fast behind them. As the harbour was lulled by a lapping tide, the women walked through the rain. Mari stroked the picture, crisp in her pocket.

Gwen Davies becomes editor of New Welsh Review this March.


previous vintage gems: My Bukowski


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