‘The Emerald’ A short story by Gee Williams

The little box is clutched in my hand. I’m on the threshold of Lowe & Sons, 11 Bridge Street Row, Chester. They’re open (good omen) and I’m more than satisfied with what I’m about to do when this stray sentence pops into my head: every emerald has a flaw. And I hesitate. The shop windows are a tribute to finery. ‘Antique Jewelry and Silver’ – their trade as advertised – fills every showcase. Before me lies an entire glitter-fest of perfect objects, so what am I waiting for?…Ah! See that over the door, Fay? (It’s a voice, much-missed, impossible to mistake.)Established 1770. They’ve got the quality stuff here! Like Christmas, isn’t it?

Gotcha! My mother. If there’s no one to argue with, she’ll contradict herself: how is flawed ever quality? Stay in lane, will you? We’re barely inside…to confront this dazzle to defeat the eye. It’s just as before. Like Christmas, Fay? Spot on. Because nothing has changed – and everything has changed. I’m alone for one, or almost, and when I say ‘stray sentence’ I mean her words are spoken in my mind…and, as
I’m noticed by the assistant, here she is again with: It was a bit of green carpet. Strident and even more incongruous, obviously this has to be put on record – and distracting? You’ve no idea. I’ve opened the little box by now, exposed the contents and ought to be specifying my needs across the mahogany divide. Instead my mother presses on with ‘course you know he was a blind man.

Yes, I know. Some war. A regiment of the blind come home: marching wounded in black-and-white, each man clutches a comrade’s shoulder…unbearably sad – but no.

Please.

No, Mum! None of your tales. Back off!

I was feeling OK when I came in.

*

On our first visit, ‘Every emerald has a flaw,’ wasn’t even hers by rights. It was said by the man from Lowe & Sons. But he’d been goaded into the response. ‘Not as shiny as a diamond, is it?’ was her opening gambit. The item in question he’d taken from a tray of rings and it lay between the three of us. ‘But rarer than a diamond,’ he’d murmured – and pointed out ‘just one tiny occlusion’ within the (pretty) tiny stone and my mother had pulled away from the counter on hearing this mantra – which would become my mantra – and then echoed it. ‘Every emerald?’ she came back at him. ‘Puts me off a bit.’

He’d been unfazed and not at all condescending: ‘No, no madam! It’s the nature of the gem. The French call occlusions the jardin. The idea is you can see a garden inside and each one’s different. This is a nice square cut stone.’ An awkward pause followed. Another customer should come in to ease the tension, I thought. But along the covered Rows, (the Jewel in Chester’s Crown) pedestrians drawn like moths to the shimmering windows remained there, bemused… ‘A nice stone, else we wouldn’t be selling it.’

‘Hmm,’ my mother said. ‘You’re sure you want it, Fay?’

‘Well that’s the colour, Mum.’ And you’ve lost your heart already – to a ring, to the idea. ‘Bit expensive, though.’

‘Never mind the price.’ Were we difficult customers? Lowe’s Man gave nothing away. Only I caught the tension, the coiled urgency in my mother’s stance, her tone. ‘Hmm. We could bring the hood in, for a match-‘

‘No. I promise you. Exact!’ I said.

And she held up the emerald to force a glint. Between well-worn finger ends there’s a brief flash of deep seawater – and grass clippings. ‘I can’t make out any garden – not even a backyard! My daughter – Fay,’ she explained (with condescension, oh the shame), ‘is gettin’ her degree. The er…hood on the outfit – the robe – is lined with leaf green silk. I’ve been saving for this-‘ another pulse of vert is extracted from the jardin ‘- her present, something special… and the colour I’m looking for.’

A drawing of the garden within the emerald
@Tim Foxon timfoxon.com

He was gracious in victory. ‘Congratulations, miss. Will you try the ring on?’ I did: too loose. ‘Just a tad,’ he said smoothly. ‘Let me take your size – having it altered is simple enough.’

‘We’ll be in Oxford in a week’s time,’ my mother pronounced with all the precision of a BBC newsreader.

‘Then we’ll need to hurry it along. For an important event.’

Maternal pride was satisfied, my embarrassment stowed for later, and payment made. The exact amount for the exact shade of green. For the life of me I can’t remember how much. Nor is there anyone left to ask. But I remember the notes – so many notes of small denomination! – and the jingle of coins… and the jingle of a bell as we leave?

But that’s an embellishment too far…

(Of course there wasn’t a bell, my mother chides. Not on the oldest family jeweler in the city.)

As we walked out together, the Rows seemed shadowy after being bathed in such brilliance. We squinted and blinked at each other, my mother saying, ‘He was very helpful, I thought. Polite. What you’d expect.

*

Lowe & Sons today is almost phantasmagorical in its persistence, and Christmas-like still. Certainly it’s magick’d up my mother in that ‘best’ camel coat of hers worn for the occasion, her greying hair newly cut to meet the faux fur collar…and overwhelms my senses with silver and gold and diamonds and rubies and sapphires; the luster of glass and burnished wood is piling on and the chandelier floating above the intimacy of our consultation. I search for a glint of green and, though notfinding it, have to plant both palms on the counter for steadiness.

‘Yes, I see it’s one of ours.’ The assistant – a she, this time – has already turned her attention to my offering. ‘How long, did you say? Before my time…but there’s just something about a piece of jewelry with a past, isn’t there?…craftsman-made, the hours of work…’ She looks up to include me unaware of my including a third. ‘You have to have that fascination – or why work here?’

‘Absolutely. The person – the man – who sold it us seemed to feel the same.’

‘And it’s too small?’

I nod. ‘Just over the knuckle. Age, you know, does that.’

‘We can certainly do the alteration. You’ll want to be able to wear it again.’

Will I? ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I suppose so. No hurry – except I’m not sure when I’d be able to collect it – so couriered please…whenever.’ And since we’re in unburdening mode, how about this? I tell her, ‘There’s a slight chip on one corner. I’ve been careless.’

‘Mm – they’re soft stones, easily damaged.’

Her magnifying lens is set to reveal all. The unassuming dress ring will be stripped to its underwear so I get ahead of the game. ‘And an occlusion. We were told about that. Every emerald has one-‘

‘Well…almost every,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Almost. They described the Rockefeller emerald as flawless at auction. Five and half million!’

‘Wow!’ While she’s sizing my appropriate finger and then taking down ‘Fay Blethyn’ and contact details, I keep the balloon in the air with, ‘So a bit dearer than mine?’

‘A bit…we’ve a little museum upstairs if you’re interested in gemstones – and Lowe’s. It’s the- ‘

‘Oldest family jewelers in the city. Yes. Maybe another time – when – if…’

Then I’m outside.

*

…and what’s this – an homage? Because I’m taking a left turn for no reason. My mother always wanted to keep to the Rows and revel in shops on top of shops as far as you can see… The sky began to threaten us that late afternoon – and Chester counter-punched the dusk with glamour. Only where Pepper cuts Bridge Street in half were we forced down to the pavement. The Rows fox you into believing you can float forever above ground level. You can’t.

‘The dog’s stomach’ll think its throat’s been cut,’ my mother said.

‘Mum!’

‘We should go I suppose. I’m spent up.’ St Peter’s church was now further away than ever. Beyond, lay a fair walk up to Delamere Street where the Crossville buses lurked… but flushed with success she zigzags off course, finding sudden interest in cookware and shoes and lingerie. And now our main mission was achieved why not let the traders of the undercroft try to seduce us? ‘We can only
look,’ she said and threaded her arm through mine. Ravishing period architecture was never her thing; how much retail experience could be squidged together, that was the bravura performance… and since we’re here, she said we may as well… She lived in the moment – though it was a ‘now’ bordered by experience and hand-me-down snippets, a sort of temporal overlap. No disrespect is intended when I call my mother the embodiment of ‘Rachel’ from Friends – for whom the ages of history were all just Days of Yore. So why did I tease her? ‘This lot’s built on centuries of rubble,’ I pointed upwards at black and white gothic revival above the newspaper offices, brick Dutch gables over a man’s outfitters…’They had to go high to keep the Welsh out – and away from their quality stuff.’

‘Didn’t work then.’

But some down to earth mood had caught us up or maybe a sense of anticlimax. How many Saturdays in my last term had she come into town to gaze in one particular shop front? After the thrill of finding the emerald and name-checking the ceremony – at Oxford – and buying the ring, a quest in itself… there was a not-quite empty house to look forward to. We both knew I was never coming home.

‘Lonely? No, I’ve got the dog!’ – was how she fended off sympathy. The same dog’s rumbling stomach I presume brought out the following. ‘We’re all mongrels – not proper Welsh. Half and half’s. When I was a kid we had family lived in the Courts near here… shocking places.’ Despite the camel coat, the faux fur, she shivered. ‘They were the alleys and tenements blocks at the back of all these posh streets.’

‘The Courts? Oh, so there was an anti-Rows as well?’

I deserved her ignoring me. ‘I got took to see some uncle once – no, that’s not it – my great uncle. I think so. He was a blind man. And he was up high, all right – they lived in the attics, him and his wife. A blind man up all them steps…imagine it…and a neighbour gave them a bit of green carpet to keep out the draft. Trying to help.’

‘This doesn’t end well, Mum, does it?’

She snickered – that’s the only word for. ‘No, it doesn’t.’

‘None of your stories do – even if they’re funny.’

Well I can’t help real life. You see nobody told him about the bit of carpet and-‘

‘You’re so bad! This is a blind man and I’m getting the idea…I’m thinking something macabre.’

She had no riposte; only silence long enough for me to admit I was needling her out of love and gratitude for a ring I wanted too… which will bow me down…into the future. And regret’s blooming already – though in a backyard rather than a garden.

‘Go on then,’ I coaxed. ‘Finish it off.’

‘No- you’re right. It’s grim…and we’ve had a really good day. I won’t.’

‘And next week we’ll be down in Oxford together and…you can tell me then.’

‘I might. If you like.’

*

It is cold. The chill hits me as I make for St Peter’s: the draft, I think. But once into the Watergate, shops are brighter than ever and the Rows fuller. I promenade, let them tempt me with unfamiliar displays, the old city exotic and changeable and compelling as a cuttlefish. I’m jostled in my idling…while he (it’s a he this time) will be waiting in a warm car, wondering at the delay. Maybe impatient.

But while my mother’s arm remains in mine – I feel its slight pressure – I don’t want to give her the slip. Not now. Not yet.

© Gee Williams

Gee Williams has won or been shortlisted for numerous national and international awards. She has published five books of fiction, including Salvage (Granta) set mainly in Chester.

geewilliams.info

Illustration: ©Tim Foxon