Wetherby, Yorkshire, 2002
On the threshold of The Treasure Chest, I hesitated; a jewellery shop’s not one to be entered lightly. a bell signalled our arrival and a man in black, who looked like an undertaker, came out of the back and studied us for a moment. Hardly love’s young dream, we weren’t golden wedding material either, or Taylor and Burton types. We were actually in search of a ring to symbolise a romance that had begun the year before, to help close the 200 mile distance between us when apart.
Three cushioned trays were set on the counter, but I was in a delicate dilemma. I had no idea what price range my companion had in mind. How high could I go before my hero had a heart attack?
But the trays were waiting , so I tried a few on, ignoring the tiny labels. Some were too fancy, others didn’t fit. I’d have liked to go to another shop or two, but time was short and the undertaker, whose smile didn’t suit him, was nudging the third tray in my direction – like a casket in a play – and a simple band with an opal at the centre caught my attention and my hand stretched out towards it. A perfect fit.
A few hours later, I was on the train south. Home alone, I consulted a book about gemstones: opals were quite fragile, only lumps of silica and water, not to be rubbed with anything unprofessional….
I still love and wear this ring, as a memento of the professor whose gift it was. When we met, his wife was in a home and didn’t even know she had a husband. Her jewellery, he told me, including her wedding ring, was put away in a drawer in his house, ready for their daughter, when the time came.
I’ve kept hold of almost all the rings ever in my possession – 17 ‘good’ ones in precious metals and a few others in bronze or brass. Only one is set with diamonds – the colour of cognac – chosen from a shopping channel: my third engagement ring. A promise made to the professor, then broken. But like the opal, still a favourite.
The first engagement ring rarely leaves its satin-lined box. It’s a little tight these days – a second-hand sapphire, bought in Brighton in 1970 by a man with the best beard I’ve ever been involved with, who divorced me by post three years later. One rueful day, very short of cash, I sold my wedding ring for a silly sum, then tried and failed, to get it back….
Worn in the direct line of sight, the relationship with a ring is often a close one. Unlike anything that dangles or has to be fastened, a ring tends to stay put – so there’s a calm about it, a comfort even.
I knew a woman once who used to complain to anyone who’d listen that her marriage was a ‘misery’; she couldn’t bear her ‘hopeless’ husband anywhere near her. But when the poor man died, she couldn’t seem to let him go and ordered a ring like no other, which involved sending a small amount of his ashes (two teaspoons) to a personal memorial company, who fused them into crystal to form a ‘forever’ ring. The last I heard of her, she never took it off, not even in bed or in the shower or the swimming pool..
I used to think this was beyond bizarre, but the human heart has far more chambers than we know… and more than one may be haunted, sometimes by a single scene – like the one that ended what remained of my childhood,
St Mary’s, Paddington, February, 1963
A woman I no longer recognised lay in a hospital bed screened off from the rest of the ward. Her black leather handbag waited in the cabinet of castors by the bed. I’d missed her death by minutes. The nurses left me alone out of respect, but I had no idea what to feel and just stood there – there, like her, but not really there at all. A student aged 18.
More minutes must have passed, then I lifted her hand, still warm, and in an action fixed in time, removed the wedding ring from her finger and put it into the bag. It was the one my father gave her in 1943. It came off quite easily, but there was a slight indentation in the skin where the silver band had been. Outside the curtain, the lunch trolley rattled down the ward.
I wore my mother’s ring for years till one day it disappeared in a department store in Piccadilly, I don’t know how. It was as though it had decided to leave me – to lose itself – and say goodbye.
Another link in this chain from the past to the present holds firm – in the shape of a cameo my father liberated from a palace in Italy and sent home. It was never quite right as a brooch, so I had it made into a ring – and when I wear it, the Three Graces seem to dance, a garland held above their heads.
My great-aunt’s ring had a more mundane experience. After surviving the long passage from her hand to mine, one of the garnets fell out of it, so the dear old thing was taken to a jeweller’s to be repaired and I forgot all about it. It could still be there.
But the ring most missed is one I bought myself in an Islington market – a rose-gold Victorian affair in an entwined but simple design, lost in a park one winter. An adornment and delight. Maybe it slipped into a glove or fell on the grass. I hope it found a good home; whoever wears it now, I still feel it belongs to me. It’s an absence on my finger, a space no other ring can fill. But not long ago I saw one that seemed to claim a place on my hand…
The Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, England, September, 2021
We peered at several glittering window displays, but entered only one shop. Not Post Pawnbrokers, but the Empire of Gems next door. One security door closed behind us before another buzzed open – briefly trapping us in the space between – but the atmosphere was friendly and the owner of the shop was from Afghanistan and missed the towering mountains rich in emeralds and kunzite and a stone I’d never heard of – Hiddenite!
My friend was like a child in a sweet shop, trying on several rings till finally falling in love with a ruby and diamond ring, in perfect proportion to her hand. She’s always been attracted to things of brilliance and sparkle, a bit dangerous to shop with; I prefer a quieter shine. But when she tried to buy it, her card was refused. The cost exceeded her credit limit. Between us, however, it could be covered – a loan soon repaid. The man from the mountains beamed and offered us coffee.
The only ring that appealed to me was set with a large oblong stone with a luminous caramel quality to it: an Abyssinian opal. A companion for the Wetherby one! But had to resist it – son’s wedding next year! solicitor’s bills! But the ring still glows in my mind.
Rachel’s ring reflects her personality, as favourite pieces of jewellery often do. No one had ever owned it before, so its adventure will start with her. Rings have a habit of setting stories in motion…
In Tolkien’s epic tale, the One Ring ‘to rule them all’, forged in the fires of Mount Doom, is an instrument of evil and darkness, to be destroyed – not that I’ve actually read the trilogy – far too long and fantastical for me – but there’s another book with a ring running through it that I’ve just read a second time. A true story, a real ring – given to a girl in Czechoslovakia in 1942 by her sweetheart.
For this ring Zdenka Fantlova risked her life many times. Once, when naked with no clothes to hide it in, she slipped it under her tongue. Its discovery would have meant certain death, but it spoke of the hope of reunion…which helped keep her alive.
The man who gave it to her was transported ‘to the east’ and never came back; she and the place in her heart for him survived.
As did the token of love made of tin. Of no material value and way beyond price. Such a small and hollow thing, possessed of the power to reflect its time and shape the course of someone’s life. An eternity ring. The circle with no beginning or end.