SEQUINS AND SAPPHIRES
2,980 words

Tiny turned a clod of earth over with the toe of his boot. There was the glint of gold. He was hardly able to believe his luck. Had such a minor cog in life's wheel as him, and only a cheap metal detector, stumbled across the hoard of the century? The young man was clenched by the same euphoria experienced when, for a split second, he believed his lottery number had come up. Should he phone the museum first, or dig a little deeper to be sure? He pulled off his gloves to excavate the suspiciously friable soil with fingers for fear of damaging a precious Saxon beaker or brooch.
Scumble barked.
Tiny glanced up. The last thing he needed was someone else to see that he had discovered treasure. But it was only a squirrel. The mongrel would ignore cats and rats, and run away from sheep, yet could detect a squirrel miles away. Tiny went back to work, using his fingers and a penknife to carefully scrape away the soil and daisy roots. It was somehow inevitable that the golden gleam would only turn out to be copper. Tiny's heart sank. If that had been in the ground for any length of time it would be tarnished green by now. Not only that, its burnished surface had been protected by a very modern coat of lacquer. Suddenly Scumble forgot about squirrels to find the object interesting. The dog started to dig.
It looked like rain and there was no point in trudging back through the mud without anything to show for it, so Tiny and his scruffy mongrel unearthed their find with the finesse of wombats grubbing up roots. All they had to show for the effort was a round copper container the size of a cake tin with a lid impossible to prise open.
The rain started to fall. Tiny pushed the find into his knapsack, picked up his metal detector and set off for home, not bothering to put Scumble on the lead as they crossed the field of sheep, knowing that he would keep well clear of them.
On the green velvet tablecloth in Tiny's basement flat the copper container with an exotic, embossed pattern looked strangely at home once it had been cleaned up. Most of the furniture and fittings had been donated by an elderly aunt, the only member of the family who hadn't ostracised him as borderline stupid and a hopeless underachiever. Aunt Veronica and Scumble were the only ones in the world who had much time for the 25-year-old. Ten employers, three girlfriends, and hundreds of job applications, and Tiny still hadn't found his niche in life. Part-time assistant to the groundsman at the local golf course was hardly a career; at least Scumble hated grey squirrels so vehemently he saved many a tree from being ring barked.
Although the container was barely tarnished, corrosion had sealed the lid on tight. Before reaching for a can of lubricant to free it, Tiny's imagination set to work to cushion the inevitable disappointment. There must have been a reason for someone burying it: stolen goods, perhaps? Or did it contain body parts which were meant to stay interred? Even Scumble, initially enthusiastic to dig up the container, now eyed it suspiciously. Would it be such a good idea to open it after all, or better to go and watch the Hellboy DVD?
'What do we do then, Scum? Open it?'
The dog cast its owner a sideways glance as though to say, 'Be it on your own head.'
His dog probably had better sense, but Tiny went to work with the WD-40 and a screwdriver all the same to work the lid free. Holding the copper container well away from his nose just in case there was an ear or internal organ inside, he opened it. Instead of a decomposing stench, the distinctive perfume of baby talcum powder wafted out.
For one dreadful, soul clenching second, Tiny visualised the remains of a newborn infant, and then was reassured by Scumble's lack of interest. That dog had an acute sense of smell and would have been running up the walls by now if it had.
Tiny looked inside the container and began to remove boxes of sequins, diamante buckles, sapphire jewellery, and a pouch full of greasepaint, lipsticks and mascaras. Given Tiny's limited contact with the opposite sex, he had never seen so much makeup in one place. Most intriguing of all, packed tightly underneath the other items, was a blonde wig dusted with talcum powder, and below that some letters and postcards.
Once the contents were laid out on the green velvet tablecloth, it seemed amazing that so much could be crammed into a container hardly larger than a Dundee cake tin.
Tiny pulled the sapphire necklace and bracelet from their plastic sleeve and wondered at how the cheap jewellery reflected the light from his economy light bulb with such intensity. However inexpensive they may have been, it was inexplicable that no one wanted to retrieve them. Perhaps he should see if his Aunt Veronica wanted the costume jewellery; she liked anything that shone and had a Tiffany lamp with similar coloured glass. Then Scumble sneezed at the fragrance released from the letters tightly tied with yellow ribbon. It was more overpowering than the baby talc.
Tiny gingerly turned over each old postcard with daguerreotypes of Edwardian ladies, Mucha poster designs and bawdy seaside cartoons, glancing at the elegantly scrawled script on the back of each. The missives mainly consisted of, "Have arrived safely", "Good wishes", and "Break a leg".
"Break a leg"? Tiny had a girlfriend with theatrical pretensions who used to say that. The messages were open and friendly so he had no compunction about reading through all of them. But the lavender envelopes were a different matter. These looked like love letters; love letters that had been buried in a copper container in a remote corner of the countryside. Perhaps he should repack the contents and return it to that hole in the field of sheep? But it was getting dark and still raining. He would do it tomorrow.
All evening the powdery contents of the tin lay on the green velvet tablecloth enticing him, even while he sat with his back to them, watching the TV and eating pot noodles. Eventually temptation defeated Hellboy, and Tiny returned to the table.
He was usually disinterested in the entanglements of other people's love lives, possibly because no one had ever confided in him about theirs. And it was not as if anyone would know if he had riffled through their personal billet-doux as these elegantly addressed envelopes came from a level of society a loser like him would never have access to.
Tiny carefully untied the yellow ribbon and pulled out a lavender coloured letter. At first glance the rapidly written message appeared more like an admonishment than commitment of fealty; this was confirmed as soon as he started to read.
'Well darling! That was a fine way to leave your lover, without a word of farewell, adrift on the turbulent sea of this ghastly production with a broken mast and frayed sequin bodice! You could have at least sent a postcard from the Rue du Perfidy!'
If there were any double entendres intended here, Tiny did not recognise them; he was a lost soul when it came to loose banter in the Dog and Trumpet. And the letter didn't begin with Dear 'whoever' either, just came straight to the point as though picking up after a rudely interrupted conversation.
'And leaving me with your screaming brat! You do know he scratched the bathroom cabinet trying to reach your stash of pot on the cistern!'
This was certainly no love letter.
Tiny took out another perfumed page.
'All right - don't reply! It's not as if I want you to take Adam back, and I don't suppose for one moment you can remember his mother's address, you callous worm!'
Tiny didn't bother to finish this one either and opened another rant from the furious Loretta.
'I suppose you're hoarding these letters for spite. Any other uncivilised reprobate like you would have at least had the decency to put "return to sender" on the envelopes'...
And another.
'I know that this won't bother you or that strumpet you ran off with, but your child had his operation today. They won't know if it's a success until Adam regains consciousness. So discuss that over your candlelit suppers with your expensive trash!'
Tiny stopped there. He had never been bombarded with so much personal drama in his lifetime and it was all too heady for him to take in at once. It made the young man wonder what it would be like to have a life filled with such emotion, either as the recipient being scolded by the passionate Loretta, or even as the deserted waif undergoing major surgery. It made him realise how much his existence had been lacking meaningful content from the cradle: a mother browbeaten by lack of opportunity and bullying father, and expectations that he would never amount to anything. Even the unfortunate Adam had a Loretta to shout on his behalf.
Having read the letters, Tiny now faced a dilemma. Despite all the disorganised slovenliness of his single existence, the young man unaccountably had that germ of empathy lacking in his drinking pals. Even the ones with families were mostly mouthy, fumble fisted incompetents when it came to recognising the feelings of others. He often cringed at the things they said about their girlfriends and wives. Whoever had buried the letters so long ago would have probably enjoyed their company. Tiny also felt concern for the young boy who underwent major surgery: did he survive? Did Loretta survive? At last he was confronted by a real, heart wrenching conundrum at odds with a life that had consisted of one blunder after another.
'What do I do, Scumble?'
The mongrel just gave him the "Isn't it about time you fed me" look.
Tiny jotted down the address at the top of the letters and repacked the copper container's contents, hesitating to once again examine the sparkling sapphire necklace and bracelet which had been so carelessly tossed in as if an afterthought. No - they couldn't be real; probably glass! He returned them last before covering them with some crumpled tissue paper that had wrapped the present his last girlfriend had hurled back at him for calling her by the wrong name, before pushing on the lid. Then he opened a tin and fed Scumble.
The next morning Tiny caught a bus. It took a 90 minute ride and half-hour walk to reach 20, Cherry Garden Lane.
The address was not the elegant townhouse he had expected. It was at the centre of a village that had become a suburb without loosing its rural charm. Some grass verges were filled with wild flowers and others planted with pansies and polyanthus, and the terraced cottages should have housed milkmaids and shepherds. The road reminded Tiny of the Victorian countryside idyll his aunt Veronica had hanging in an ornate frame over her mantelpiece.
A local resident glanced at him and his scruffy dog with curiosity and forbearance, as though accepting he had a good reason to be there and, when he reached the front gate of number 20, a large woman bustled up the road towards him as though marshalling competitors at the local gymkhana. She wore a delicately flowered print dress under an ancient duffel coat that looked as though it had been left in the farmyard overnight. Tiny was probably one of the few people unlikely to register the incongruity
'Oh, they must have gone on ahead some while ago,' she called, then noticed Scumble and hesitated as though seeing the potential sheepdog in the mongrel. 'Who were you looking for?'
'Loretta,' Tiny offered nervously, intimidated by the suddenness of her familiarity. Many people seeing a scruffy stranger at a neighbour's gate would have assumed he was a vagrant and called the police.
The wind left the sails of the galleon bearing down on him. 'Oh yes - of course. You obviously don't know, do you?'
Tiny wondered what faux pas he had made now, so took the copper container from under his arm in the hope of not making matters worse. 'Got something of hers.'
The large woman unexpectedly pulled out a tissue and wiped away a regretful tear at some failing on her part. 'Oh, I'm so sorry. She's not here.'
'Then perhaps Adam could take it.' Tiny didn't know what else to say. Despite his best intentions, had he managed to do it yet again - blunder in at the wrong moment?
'Oh, I must be too late now, so you might as well come with me,' the woman suddenly decided. 'My name's Hattie.'
'Mine's Tiny.'
'I'm afraid your dog will have to go in the back.'
She led them to a mud spattered four-wheel-drive, opened the rear door and ordered Scumble into the compartment behind a safety screen. To Tiny's surprise, his mongrel obeyed without a whimper and sat gazing at the back of their heads as Hattie drove to a crematorium. Tiny was now convinced that he should have returned the copper container to its hole and forgotten about it.
As they entered the drive of The Willows, which was lined by commemorative plaques, he decided to remain silent, an art learnt during a life of hard knocks and having a father fast with his fists and slow with words, especially after a few beers. Hattie parked in a discreet area set aside for grieving relatives, and then grasped Tiny's arm to bustle him to where a deceased's ashes had just been scattered after the funeral service. She released him to dash over to a tall, statuesque woman wearing deep purple and a heavy veil, and threw her arms about her.
'Oh, I am so sorry, Loretta! I really wanted to be here, but the foal was a breech birth...' she gushed.
'It's all right, Hattie. It's all right. It was a beautiful service. We loved it.' Loretta raised her veil to observe Tiny. The face was ageing but, like her ankle length dress, immaculate. He had never encountered a woman so imposing or heard a husky voice so seductive.
Tiny involuntarily glanced at where the ashes had been scattered.
'He would have died much earlier if it hadn't been for Loretta,' Hattie announced simply.
'I'm... sorry,' Tiny stammered.
Loretta smiled reassuringly. 'Why bless you dear, there's no need for you to be sorry.'
Tiny held out the copper container. 'I don't know if this is the right time...'
'Well, well, what do we have here?' There was a suggestion in her tone that she had already guessed.
Loretta put on an elegant pair of reading glasses and watched keenly as Tiny prized the lid open.
'I really didn't mean to, but I read some of the letters. That's how I found out your address.'
By the change in Loretta's expression as she saw the container's contents, it was unlikely what he said had registered. Her heavily mascaraed eyes lit up as though she had rediscovered her lost youth. She delicately pulled away the crumpled tissue paper to reveal the sapphire necklace and bracelet.
'Oh, dear God! Hattie! Hattie! Just look!' Loretta held up the necklace and the gems sparkled in the sunlight.
'Ain't real, is it?' Tiny asked tentatively.
'Oh you sweet thing, of course it's real! These are the long lost jewels from time when we were younger and had money to squander.'
'They must be worth a fortune,' added Hattie. 'Though I was always in two minds about whether they actually existed. Loretta always knew how to beguile the gallery with tall stories.'
Loretta sighed wistfully. 'But I would never have dared wear these on the stage. I so wanted him to see me in them one last time.'
'Well put them on now then. He might still be watching.' Hattie took the necklace, lifted Loretta's veil aside, and fastened the jewels about her satin collar.
Tiny handed her the bracelet and she pushed it onto a long, silken glove.
'He was such a fool, spending all that money on me, then forgetting where he hid them.'
'He hid them..?' Tiny stopped.
'Why yes. He had to go abroad for several weeks on business and took them with him to get the jeweller to adjust the chains. While he was out of the country he was taken seriously ill. He only received the wretched letters in this tin some time later. We had argued before he left and I was convinced that he had found someone else. I had no idea how badly the illness had affected his mind. When he did eventually come back to the UK, he believed I never wanted to see him again. He had always been such a muddleheaded creature before the illness, like his son in many ways.'
A tall young man standing nearby had been silent until then. 'Not so muddleheaded I wasn't able to track him down to that nursing home.'
Loretta extended her hand to the good looking 20-year-old. 'This is Adam, his son.'
'And this is a Loretta, my mother. I only knew my father towards the end of his life - I don't think he ever realised who I was.'
Until then, Tiny thought he had grasped the intricacies of the situation; now confusion must have been written in his face. 'Then... She's your mother?'
'Oh yes, in everything but blood. Poor Justin couldn't remember who my real mother was. But I was lucky. Loretta raised me. I now belong to the family of best drag queens in this county.'

Back to Short Stories