I walk slightly ahead of my aunt, giving her time to take up her walking frame and hide the front door key under a book. Her house is shadowy, the blinds drawn against a run of hot days, giving the sitting room a pink glow.
‘Sit down, sit down’, she says, offering me a cup of tea – or perhaps a cold drink? ‘Maybe later’, I reply, ‘I’ve only just finished lunch’. We sit down, she in her cream recliner with a cushion, and me on another cream recliner. ‘What have you been up to?’ she asks, and I go into enough detail about my daughter’s and my last few days to make her feel that we’ve come to Adelaide not just to see her.
Satisfied, she sits back in her chair, folds her hands and smiles. ‘And is that a necklace you are wearing?’ she asks. ‘I’ve never been sure whether you liked wearing jewellery’. ‘Oh yes’, I say, ‘it’s a necklace that I’ve had since London. In summer I wear necklaces quite a lot’. ‘And what stone is it?’ she asks, leaning forwards and reaching out her hand to feel it. ‘They’re glass beads in different greys. It’s really nothing special’.
‘I’m so glad that you came to see me on your own’, she says. ‘Because there’s something that I want to show you’. Reaching out an arm covered in sun spots, she grasps hold of a rectangular jewellery box covered with fraying soft leather.
My aunt is eighty-nine and, of her two sisters and brother, my father, she is the only one still alive. And I know she feels this. She is the only one of her generation in possession of our family’s memories. This is not however her only job. She has also taken it on herself to keep track of all our movements, and to find out whether we are happy.
When my sisters and cousins visit my aunt, as I am now, she’ll tell us stories as if there were no tomorrow – which may be why she tells them. And is it my imagination, or is she happier, more relaxed somehow, since my uncle’s recent death? Could it be that ending seventy years of marriage has allowed her to blossom in an almost a childlike way? Yes, she is more frail than on my last trip to Adelaide – she takes longer to get from the front door to her chair. Yet she’s more playful too, jumping from one story to the next before dropping it to come back to the point. Although what that point might be, in a cool sitting room on a very hot day, isn’t obvious to either of us.
The pink rosebud wallpaper in her bathroom is as delicate as ever. The David Jones hand cream by the basin is the same, as always. A flannel draped neatly over the bath is still damp.
When I return from the bathroom my aunt jiggles the lock on her jewellery box for long enough for us both to wonder if it’s broken. Finally the lock gives. Inside each of the five velvet lined sections is a piece of jewellery – rings, a bracelet, a peal necklace, a pink watch chain, and clip-on earrings. With bony fingers she picks up each piece in turn, telling me a tale about each.
‘This emerald ring I bought at the top end of, which street in Melbourne would it have been?’ ‘Collins Street?’ I offer. ‘No, not that one’. ‘Bourke Street?’ ‘Yes, that’s the one. I bought this ring with my own money from a shop which advertised in one of the magazines Mummy used to get, and that I loved to read. The man in the shop was very particular about this ring. He told me that it had a flaw. And that if at any time in the future I wanted to sell the ring back to him, that he would be happy to buy it’.
‘I can’t see any flaw’, I say, peering at the green stone. ‘No, I suppose you would need to be a jeweller to see it’, she said, placing it back down in her box.‘And these are Mummy’s pearls. You see they are proper graduated pearls, grown from a tiny seed. Not like the pearls you see around these days. And it has this beautiful catch at the back with two small stones set into it’. She fiddles with the catch to open it but fails. I take the pearls from her and open the catch, which isn’t easy, and hand the strand back to her.
‘I know you don’t really wear jewellery’, she says, dropping her voice, ‘but I wondered if you might wear these pearls with pride?’ ‘Goodness,’ I reply, taken aback and flattered at the same time. ‘Of course I will, I’d love to wear them’. We pause, taking it in. ‘I’m so glad’, she replies. ‘I was worried that you wouldn’t want to wear them’. ‘Of course I will’, I say, lying the strand down on the table. ‘They’re gorgeous pearls and I’ll always treasure them’.
Then she takes up the next piece of jewellery, another ring, and remembers being five years old and living in a big house outside London with my father, who is two years older, and of being given a halfpenny to spend in the village which she always spent at the sweet shop whereas my father waited until they got to the toy shop where he bought a farm animal.
As my aunt closes the leather box I reach out my hand and place it on top of hers. She looks up surprised. So am I. She stares into my face, searching. ‘You know, Lucy, while you were talking I was having a little think, and I realised something that I want to tell you. Many years ago, when I left Adelaide for London, and you were kind enough to compile those tapes of your favourite classical music for me to take, I knew that I’d never be the kind of woman who lived in Adelaide and wore pearls like these. And’, I said, forcing myself on, ‘even today, now that I really am grown up and should know better, even now I don’t know if I’m the kind of woman who can carry off pearls as lovely as these.’
‘Oh Helen’, she says softly. ‘But the other thing I realised’, I say, ‘while you were remembering buying toffees at the sweet shop, was that if I had the emerald ring you just showed me, I’d wear it all the time and think of you every day’. There was a pause. ‘Then of course you must have it’, my aunt said, bending over her box and finding the emerald ring. ‘It has always been a favourite of mine and I’d love you wear it.’ Leaning forward I kiss her before sitting back down. ‘Although’, she says, ‘the jeweler did say that the ring has a flaw. And you know it must never go into hot water’.
‘Thank you so much’, I say, looking closely at the ring, ‘I really can’t see a flaw, and I promise to take it off in the kitchen’. ‘But’, she adds, collecting herself, ‘who will wear the pearls?’ I shrug. ‘I’m sure you’ll find the right person. You probably already know who it is’. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘I think I do’. And she takes back the strand of pearls, puts it in her box, and snaps the lid shut.