Thursday, October 20, 2011

FICTION: Returned to the Dark by Nicky Ellam

Returned to the dark

1.      The Others.

It’s dark in here. That’s because I live at the bottom of the jewellery box along with the other outcasts: the tangled necklace with the broken lobster claw and teddy pendant she got for her eleventh birthday, along with the bracelet that’s missing a couple of gem stones. She always says she will have them repaired but never does, preferring to spend the money on more fashionable pieces instead that imitate Asian and Oriental designs. An untrained eye might imagine that they were found by a back-packer on their travels, but they weren’t. They can be bought from any shop on the high-street, and are merely echoes of worlds she’s never seen.  

Not all of us down here are broken though. I’m not, and neither is the engagement ring she got from Mark, (who eventually cheated on her with Shannon from Reception,) or the belly bar she took out when she put weight on and decided looked too young for her anyway. The ones at the top who get worn more often pity us, (‘how boring it must be,’ they say to each other in whispers they think we can’t hear, ‘being cooped up down there, month in, month out,’) but in a way they’re jealous. As I’ve said, you could buy them in their hundreds if you wanted to, and they are without sentimental value like the childhood necklace or the belly bar that reminds her of her wild teens and early twenties. They’re easily replaced and she gives them away when they become outdated- or chucks them if even her younger sister and the charity shops say no, thanks. She doesn’t like Mark’s ring or me, so it isn’t often that her fingers dig through the chunky bangles and strings of beads to bring me to the surface. It happens maybe three or four times a year when she has arranged to visit The Matriarch. The ring doesn’t even get a look in. Why Mark wouldn’t let her give it back to him so that he could give it to someone he did love is beyond us; at least that way it would have been enjoyed. All the same, seeing as I’m an heirloom and the ring is eighteen carat white gold with a diamond the size of her little fingernail, we’re here to stay. We’re what she calls “investments.”

Perhaps you imagine I get bitter when the voices of the favoured ones float above my head, chattering away about their ventures out of the box: days at work, dinners, dates, parties and who was there, who wasn’t there, what she wore…you get the drift. Or worse, maybe you feel sorry for me. I’d rather you didn’t. Pity the rest but not me. I’m not so keen on their weight pressing down on me but I don’t mind the dark. In fact I quite like it. It reminds me of home, my real one, from before I met people. As for being bitter, you can rule that out. I’m a pearl, darling; it’s not in my nature. You lot have seen me as a symbol of love for thousands of years and I do try to live up to my name by being kind- although I cannot help but wince sometimes at the irony, given that the first person I ever met died. Don’t look at me like that; it wasn’t my fault. But that’s why she doesn’t like me. All the same, when you’ve being kept in a family for over a century you do take an interest in your present owner, even if it’s not reciprocated, so I enjoy listening to the young ones’ gossip. Let them have their fun while they still can. The best they can hope for is a place in a child’s dressing-up box in just a few, short years so they might as well enjoy it.

2.      Memories.

I might be old-fashioned and be from a past that she and you would rather forget, but I’m not like your kind. I will endure and outlive the others, her- even you. And I never forget. My memory doesn’t grow weak with age, it gets stronger. I can still smell what my home was like; still feel the movements of the person who found me when he panicked and rushed too quickly to the top, and the urgent, grasping hand of the first, but different person to ever touch me, as though I’d only stopped smelling and feeling them a minute ago. The memories of my owners and the events in their lives play like the films you are so fond of; the moment when her grandfather proposed to her grandmother, and the christening of her mother, they are all here ready to be relived whenever I choose. The stories I could tell you would  fill every evening of your life and I would still have more secrets to share, so I don’t begrudge the others their moments. Being 130 years old is not without its perks.    

No, it’s not jealousy or bitterness that concerns you when you’re an heirloom, but preservation and stability. It is an unspoken rule that I am passed onto the nearest living woman in the family, and there have only been two times when I have not been passed down either to a son’s wife, sibling, or in the more usual way from grandmother, mother to daughter and so on: the first time was in the 1940’s when my owner died childless and I was given to her niece- (my current owner’s great-grandmother.) The second was ten years ago when the great-grandmother’s daughter skipped her own daughter and passed me down to her grandchild instead, and so here I am. Both times were disruptive and it’s not something I’d like repeating too often, although I fear it will happen again. I know your standards are different, but when an owner approaches thirty and shows no sign of wanting to settle down with someone and have children, you do get a little worried. She hasn’t had a steady boyfriend since Mark, and they split up over three years ago.

What’s the matter? Oh, I see, you’re trying to work it out. I know, family trees are so confusing but try to keep up. Maybe telling you their names would have made it easier, but as I’ve said, stability and preservation are the keys. You do not hear of farmers giving names to their livestock because there is no point getting attached when they will only be sold, or worse. It is the same with me: they will all pass on, leaving me behind and I have too much time to want to spend it all grieving. You will never hear me say their names. Take an interest, certainly; empathising with their joys and sorrows goes without saying but I will not love them. It’s not worth an existence of endless heartache. It’s funny really, in a desert-dry sort of way: A pearl that cannot love.

3.      Before she grew up.

I suppose you think it strange that her grandmother, (or The Matriarch as she jokingly calls her,) skipped a generation and gave me to someone who doesn’t like me, but it never used to be this way. When she was little and used to visit her grandmother she would ask, (very politely after giving her a peck on the cheek,) if she could play with her jewellery box. The answer was always yes, and she would very carefully hunt through the diamonds and gold to find me, pin me to her jumper and wear me for the rest of the time she was there. It became something of a ritual, to the point where her grandmother began to pick me out herself and would put me on the coffee table ready for when she arrived. When she was eighteen, The Matriarch had a heart attack, and fearing that she would never leave hospital, insisted on the girl’s mother driving for two hours to get me, so that she could give me to her personally before it was too late. They were very close, and still are in spite of the distance, for she survived against all the odds. Whenever she goes to see her she always comments on how lovely it is, seeing her granddaughter all grown up, wearing her old brooch that’s always been her favourite. And I was for a time. Traditionally I was only worn for a special or significant occasion, but when she was at college I had the strange but enjoyable experience of being put in her pocket and going with her, and if she felt nervous about something her fingers would slide down to stroke me. Normally I hated people manhandling me, but I didn’t mind in her case- it was better than her biting her nails. It was almost as if she thought that having me with her would stop something bad happening- and I have been viewed as ‘lucky.’ Stop sniggering, it’s true. In the days of knights and sword-fighting, we would be worn when the rich and noble went into battle because they thought we would protect them from harm, so don’t laugh at her. It felt good, being wanted, and I have to confess I came in danger of growing affectionate towards her- until she found out from one of her friends about the divers who took me from my home.

4.      Coming out of the dark.

You don’t like being reminded of your past- those days of glory when Britain ruled half the world. I think that’s why you apologise so much, and give more than you can afford to charities trying to save the poor and starving around the globe. It’s almost as though you’re trying to make up for all the wrongs done before you were born. And I’ve tried to avoid talking about it in case you ran away- I get lonely sometimes and it’s nice having someone to talk to. But you can’t run forever, things have to be faced eventually. Some of you may already know and may already be trying to shut out the sound of my words by turning your thoughts to the plans you’ve made for the weekend, but there’ll be a lot of you who don’t. There are lots of happy anecdotes from my owners’ lives I could have told you but this is the one you need to hear: My story.

We are not like your kind, but there is one thing we have in common: just as you can’t remember coming out of the womb, we don’t know what it was like being a grain of sand or piece of shell squeezing our way inside an oyster and hardening; all I remember is being. There were no thoughts, for when you live inside a shell there isn’t a great deal to think about- nothing happens. That probably sounds dull to you but there was no sadness, no pain or death. It was peaceful, just being. I didn’t know this at the time but even nothing has to come to an end eventually: the day would always have come when I would be found. It will be hard for you to understand what it was like being taken out of water, hearing sounds, seeing colours and light- all for the first time. On paper it sounds great, this explosion of life, but the reality was frightening- and even fear was something I had never heard of or felt before. Maybe that’s why your newborns usually cry when they come out, because they’re scared and want to go back. I’m trying to think of ways to describe how it was to you, and the only way I can think of is for you to imagine an ancient Egyptian being placed in the middle of a supermarket. That might give you a better idea, but even that doesn’t come close.

I’ve learnt a lot since then- (I’ve had to, I didn’t have any other choice-) but there’s one thing I’ve never been able to get my head around, and that is time. Your lives are ruled by clocks and diaries telling you when deadlines or birthdays are due, but when you have so much time whole years, even decades can pass you by. Forgive me then, if I am a little hazy on dates. What I can tell you is that I was brought to the surface in the late 1800s, which makes me special. There aren’t many of us that come from nature now. Most are made by man in bulk on farms. Things changed. You suddenly became concerned about human life and diving equipment got better. Both meant that the world’s poor no were no longer forced to hold their breaths for hundreds of metres when they dived to the seabed to pick up our shells, risking death by drowning or attack from sharks. At first I thought these people were slaves because I failed to understand why they would choose to do such dangerous work. But I came to realise that slavery comes in all sorts of guises if someone’s freedom is to choose between hunger and work that might kill them anyway. I don’t think anyone knows how many thousands died in the name of my beauty and what I am supposed to represent: love, luck and protection. Yet none of my so-called attributes were able to comfort the diver who found me or save him from blacking out when he ascended.

So now you know why she stopped liking me and keeps me hidden, apart from when she visits her grandmother. It’s all very well for her to hate the history I’m associated with, but she doesn’t realise that the lovely clothes she wears have voices of their own; shadows of people are woven into their fabrics and they never stop talking. There’s so many of them all speaking at once that you can’t actually hear what they’re saying, it’s just noise, which speaks for itself. You don’t need to hear their words to understand what they mean. They all come from foreign countries where labour is easy to get- how else do you think she is able to get them so cheaply? I won’t deny that my story is sad but I have a lot of memories that would give me joy if I allowed myself to feel. Listening to the stories of the living is a lot worse; they’re not just full of sadness, there’s also anger and it surrounds me when she takes me out of the box. You can hear it in the suitcase she flings in the boot of the car, and in the silence behind the news reports on the radio she listens to when she’s driving; those headlines speaking about them, but not for or to them. It’s too much to cope with and I spend those visits wishing they were over. I’m always glad when we get back and she returns me to the dark.

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