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Day forty-one

December 11, 2016

Here’s a sad story.

One Christmas when I was in my late twenties, my mum gave me an astonishing gift. When I unwrapped the small parcel, inside I found a blue velvet box and inside the box was a diamond ring. I looked at her, astonished. It was, she said, a gift to her from my father and she wanted me to have it. I cannot begin to tell you, dear reader, the mixture of emotions that swept over me. First and foremost was the thought that this was the sort of gift you left to someone in your will. Appalled at the thought that she might think she was not long for this world, I tried to tell her that she should keep it, but she was adamant that she wanted me to have it.

The most astonishing thing was that I had never seen this ring before.

I was a curious (read nosey) child and I had been through the top drawer of my mother’s dresser multiple times – the top drawer being the place where the “good stuff”, like her pearls, other items of jewellery and various interesting bits and pieces were kept. I had never seen this blue velvet box before or the ring inside it. My mum had lots of earrings and necklaces and some bracelets, but the only rings she ever wore were the gold band on her left hand and an initial ring, given to her by her parents on her twenty-first birthday. Where the hell had this ring been hidden?

When I was old enough to realise that most kids had two parents, I asked Mum about my dad. She told me he’d died in a car accident when I was still a baby. When I asked where he was buried, she told me he’d been cremated. When I was old enough to realise that women changed their names when they married (and at that time they just did), I asked her why she had the same last name as Nana and Granddad and my uncles. She told me by sheer fluke she’d married a man with the same last name as hers. Okay, flukes happen. The letters she received from family members were all addressed to Mrs. K. M. Holmes. Then one day, when I was about twelve, she received a letter from her brother (normally it was his wife, who’d been a friend of Mum’s before even meeting said brother) who wrote. This letter was addressed to Miss K. M. Holmes. Why, I asked her, would her brother address his letter this way. And then she told me: It turned out that her marriage to my father had been bigamous, that his first (real) wife tracked him down and that he’d returned to her, dying soon afterwards in the aforementioned car accident.

Poor Mum, I thought, finally old enough to begin to appreciate how hard it must have been for her, to go through that and then to have to raise me on her own.

Flash forward a decade or so. Mum had been hospitalised with a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. As a result of post-operative complications she’d suffered a stroke. When she was finally released from hospital it was the middle of winter and not a good time to be outside getting a bit of the physical exercise the doctors said would do her good. I wondered if it would help if we went somewhere sunny, checked with the doctors, who said, yes, it would be okay for her to fly and the sunshine would do her good. I arranged for us to go to Nassau for a couple of weeks. (Why Nassau? No idea.)

Staying at the same hotel as us were another mother and daughter, with whom we became somewhat friendly. Over dinner with them one night, somehow the subject of income came up. The other mother asked Mum if she was claiming her widow’s pension. Mum said no, then the other mother pressed, wanting to know why she wasn’t, when it was money she was entitled to have. I wanted to try to change the subject, to save Mum having to admit that she and my father were not legally married, but before I could, Mum said bluntly, “Because I don’t know if he’s dead.” That stopped the conversation in its tracks, the other women realising (or so they thought) that Mum had been abandoned by her husband, as wives sometimes were.

Given her delicate health at the time, I didn’t want to cause her any distress, but when we got back to our room, I had to ask her. And then I got the truth. There had been no marriage, sham or otherwise. When she’d told the man in her life that she was pregnant, he took off, never to be seen or heard from again.

Back in London, after our trip, I was livid at the thought of this man, this piece of shit man, running out on a pregnant woman. I finally knew his name and his profession, I’d learnt these things in that Nassau hotel room. I wanted him to pay. I had no interest in the tosser myself, but I wanted to track him down and make him pay. I wanted him to cough up for all the years Mum had struggled to raise me on her own, to give her money now, when the stroke had made it unlikely she would ever be able to return to work. I talked to my editor about it. He’d met and really liked my mum and he was sympathetic when I told him the story. Then he asked me the fundamental question: If I succeeded, if I tracked down this runaway father of mine and forced him somehow to give Mum money, would she thank me for it? I’d been so wrapped up in my own anger that I hadn’t given this a thought. When I did, I realised that no, my fiercely independent mother would not thank me for my efforts. She would be appalled. And so I left it.

It was the following Christmas that she gave me the ring. My father had given it to her after she told him she was pregnant and shortly before he pulled his disappearing act. The ring was lovely, although, she told me, there was some sort of flaw in the diamond that rendered it virtually worthless.

There had already been a couple of break-ins at my flat in Finchley Road and I knew one of the things burglars liked to grab was jewellery, not that I had any of value. I knew if I put this ring in its box in my drawer it would disappear the next time there was a break in. (In London it was never a question of if there would be another burglary, but when.) Even if the ring was of little financial value, it had incredible value to me. So I took it out of the box and put it on my finger. And pity the poor mugger who tried to get it off my finger. (Not that I’d ever had an experience of mugging in London. Our thieves preferred to pilfer in our absence.)

Several years later my mother died. After her death I put the initial ring her parents had given her on a finger on my other hand. These are the only two pieces of jewellery I ever wear.

Flash forward another decade. While Mike and I were here on the island, some maggot broke into our Vancouver home and robbed us blind. Amongst the items stolen were my mother’s pearls. I actually had a photo of her, taken not long after the war, wearing said pearls. When the insurance company sent me off to see a jewellery expert, I took the photo with me. He turned out to be a nice bloke with whom I had a nice chat. When we’d finished with the pearls, I asked him, on impulse, if he could assess the value of my ring. I told him I knew there was some sort of flaw in the stone, but I was interested to know. (After all, there was still the possibility of that mugging.) I took the ring off, handed it to him. He peered at it for a second, asked if he could take it away to give it a bit of a clean. (I had been known to do gardening with the ring on my finger, so it probably needed one.) I said sure and off he went. He came back a couple of minutes later, started peering at the ring through some sort of magnifying equipment. Then he looked up and asked who had told me there was a flaw in the diamond. I told him my mother had. Then he asked if I thought my mother might ever have tried to sell the ring?  I agreed that at some point it was extremely likely she had. At that point he sighed and then he told me some unscrupulous jeweller had obviously tried to cheat my mother. The diamond was flawless and worth in the neighbourhood of $8,000.

It broke my heart.

It still does when I think about it. My poor mother, abandoned by her lover, died never knowing, thanks to some devious shit of a jeweller or pawnbroker, that my father had left her with something of true value and not just the worthless ring she’d been led to believe.

How sad, how gut wrenching and infuriating is that?

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From → Black dog diary

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